The picnicker in the low-hanging Hawaiian shorts was dumbfounded. "I didn't know there was a law against cutting down a little tree," he said. "How're you going to have fun if you can't get any sunlight in there?"
"This is a national forest," Forest Service Officer Larry Brown responded tersely. "You can't do that."
A bystander had spotted the man flailing with a machete at some alder trees along the bed of the San Gabriel River. "I've been coming up here for 20 years, and I've cut down trees before," the picnicker said.
By the time Brown got there, the damage was done. Two jaggedly cut stumps jutted from the bushes. A couple of 8-year-old trees, their lush greenery in stark contrast to the dry chaparral brush that covers most of San Gabriel Canyon, were spread out on the ground like a pair of freshly murdered corpses.
What If Everybody Did It?
Brown, a thickset man with the bearing of a gunslinger, his arms hanging loose at his sides as if ready for a quick-draw, simmered. "What if everybody came up here and chopped down trees?" he asked.
The picnicker shrugged and accepted a $50 citation. "I guess you got a point there," he said. "But I did it."
A hot Sunday in July. Brown, 41, one of only three unarmed U.S. Forest Service officers patrolling the busy canyon, was going about his usual duties, dousing illegal campfires, chastising beer-guzzling plinkers at the Pigeon Ridge shooting area ("Alcohol and guns don't mix"), passing out trash bags to would-be litterers and helping visitors with car problems.
If urban police officers represent a "thin blue line" of protection for citizens, Brown and his colleagues, in their green Ford Broncos, are a kind of thin green line between one of the nation's busiest forests and a notoriously recreation-happy population.
"There are days out here when you're just hanging on by a shoestring," Brown says.
4 Million Visitors a Year
About 4 million visitors a year drive up through Azusa, into the San Gabriel Canyon: off-road vehicle enthusiasts, campers, hikers, plinkers or, often, people who just like to stand beside Highway 39, lobbing their empty beer cans into the canyon.
It's the most heavily used part of the 1,000-square-mile Angeles National Forest, which covers about 25% of Los Angeles County. On the Fourth of July, there were so many cars jammed into the area by mid-afternoon that authorities had to close the highway, because there was a danger that emergency vehicles would be blocked.
It takes a special kind of person to work there, says Brown, who has been doing it for 14 years. "You can't just hand someone keys and a badge and tell them to go do the job," he says. "You need tolerance, patience, perseverance, the ability to work with people."
Colleagues of Brown's have transferred to the gritty Angeles from the pristine wildernesses of Northern California. "They experience culture shock," says Brown. "Some people can't wait to transfer back up."
The rhythm of the day picks up as the day gets hotter. With the sun just edging up over Mt. Baldy's shoulder, Brown pulls out some historical nuggets about the forest--an account of the Civil War-era gold rush along the East Fork, for example--and speculates about the causes of recent wildfires.
Started by Fireworks
"This one here," says Brown, who also is a fire investigator for the Forest Service, "we're 98% sure was started by fireworks." He surveys a scorched, bristly tract of slope, where a fire was quickly doused by firefighters three weeks ago.
By late morning, the highway is buzzing with traffic. Brown and Forest Service Officer Rita Nolan confer briefly about where they'll focus their efforts. "I'll see you later at the afternoon accident," says Nolan as she heads to the off-road vehicle area where all-terrain vehicles and 4x4s are already tearing recklessly along rutted dirt trails. Brown looks at his watch. "It's now 11 o'clock," he says. "Experience tells me that we're liable to see anything from now on."
The forest has been on Stage 1 fire alert since June 26, and the brownish-green chaparral that covers the craggy mountains along Highway 39 is as dry as tinder. "It's a fire waiting to happen," Brown says as he gives the slopes an edgy once-over. On Monday, the drought-struck forest went into Stage 2, meaning that some areas have been closed off and there are further restrictions on campfires.
Down in the stream bed, kids frolic in the water, parents lie on blankets and barbecues glow with heat. "Charcoal, yes," says Brown to a Spanish-speaking family which has fed some logs into a cooking fire. "Wood, no." He hands a man a canvas bucket, directs him to the stream for water and watches as he douses the fire.
"Wood fires tend to be a lot more dangerous," he explains. "Barbecues are self-contained. People put them out and take them home."