Amid the sweet smoke of burning sage from a Chumash Indian prayer, conservationists, park officials and politicians gathered Thursday to celebrate the near-completion of the Backbone Trail, a 65-mile pathway along the spine of the Santa Monica Mountains from Pacific Palisades to Ventura County.
During ceremonies at Will Rogers State Historic Park that ended with the cutting of a ribbon at the trail's eastern end, parks officials said that 48 miles of the trail are now complete, that construction is under way on 10 more miles and that there are still seven miles to be acquired.
The celebration at times became a rally in support of Proposition B, the county parks bond issue facing voters Tuesday. Most of the $817 million would be used to improve city parks, beaches and cultural sites, but the measure includes $5 million for trail development in the Santa Monica Mountains and $76 million more for various projects of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.
Knifing across the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, the Backbone Trail is "one of the longest urban wilderness trails in United States," Rep. Anthony Beilenson, (D-Los Angeles), told a crowd of more than 100.
He said it provides "access to some of the most stunning views of coastline, mountains and coastal canyons available anywhere on the entire West Coast" and yet is "only a short distance away from our smoggy, congested, concrete-covered city."
In brief remarks, Los Angeles City Councilman Marvin Braude told the crowd that he plans to walk all 65 miles. "How many of you are going to join me?" he asked, and a number of hands shot up.
The hiking and equestrian trail was first authorized by the state in the mid-70s, and became a centerpiece of the national recreation area when it was created by Congress in 1978. The recreation area, administered by the National Park Service, is actually a mosaic of public parks interspersed with private lands--and it is the trail that strings the parks together.
The trail passes through four state parks: Will Rogers, Point Mugu, Topanga and Malibu Creek. Four campgrounds are available along the way, and plans call for developing one or two more so that hikers can walk the trail in five days and never lack for a place to pitch their tents.
David Gackenbach, superintendent of the recreation area, said that connector trails will eventually allow hikers and equestrians to reach the Backbone Trail from beaches to the south and from the Simi Hills and Santa Susana Mountains to the north.
Joseph T. Edmiston, executive director of the conservancy, and others took the microphone to urge support for Proposition B. In particular, officials said they were concerned about preventing development along the trail's final seven miles, held by more than a dozen landowners, including some very hard-nosed negotiators.
"We have to, in effect, buy back America, buy back the Santa Monica Mountains for future generations," Edmiston said.
If the bond act passes, "I guarantee you within a year, 18 months, we'll have the Backbone Trail completed," Edmiston said.
Of the 48 completed miles, about half are new trail and about half were existing trails and fire roads that were linked together. The building of the trails has been done by members of the California Conservation Corps, Los Angeles Conservation Corps and volunteers from such groups as the Sierra Club and Santa Monica Mountains Trails Council.
Apart from its political overtones, trail buffs conceived the ceremonies as a way to bring attention to the trail and push to get it finished.
The idea began when Ruth Kilday, a hiker who chairs the Santa Monica Mountains Parkland Assn., attempted last year to hike the trail. There were few signs and Kilday couldn't find some segments.
"It just occurred to me that I knew these mountains just about as well as anyone, and if I couldn't find it, who else would be able to?"
The association began working with state and federal parks officials to get signs posted and speed completion of the trail.
After speeches recognizing key supporters of the trail, the crowd walked behind a wailing bagpipe to a stand of eucalyptus trees, where a red ribbon stretched across the end of the dirt trail. With a pocket cigarette lighter, Kote Lotah, a Chumash Indian, lit sage leaves and chanted a Chumash blessing over the trail as the smoke perfumed the area.