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WORKING : Call of the Urban Wild : Rangers in the Santa Monicas face traffic, smog and other challenges unheard of in most parks. Many residents don't even know the wilderness area exists.

April 02, 1993|MARYANN HAMMERS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Maryann Hammers writes regularly for Valley Life

When park ranger Ernie Quintana was stationed at Saguaro National Monument in Arizona, he got around with a compass and topo graphic map.

Then, five years ago, he landed the job of chief ranger for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. He soon found he needed a new navigational tool in his backpack.

A Thomas Guide.

As Quintana learned, rangers in Los Angeles face a host of challenges unheard of in more remote parks in the country.

To patrol the Santa Monicas from end to end, rangers don't hike mountain trails or drive along country roads. They crawl along with the commuters on the Ventura Freeway.

On hot summer days, they sometimes can't see the trees for the smog. When they look out to the horizon, they are just as likely to spot a bulldozer as a deer.

And, on an annual salary starting at less than $20,000, they have to figure out a way to make ends meet in one of the nation's most expensive cities. It's no wonder that Quintana says it is difficult to recruit rangers to Southern California.

"Their lifestyle changes dramatically, and they can't afford to live here," he says, pointing out that his rent doubled when he moved his family from Tucson to Simi Valley.

National Park Service workers who are accustomed to wide open spaces and small rural communities find the Santa Monica Mountains to be "an alien environment," says fire management ranger Ishmael Messer.

While many national parks are surrounded by a forest, the Santa Monica Mountains rise above Los Angeles. As part of the urban scene, the park shares boundaries with freeways, cities and massive suburban housing developments.

"Occasionally people want to drive their bulldozer onto parkland and 'doze 200 feet of property," Messer says, noting that he never faced this situation in the wilderness of Los Padres National Forest, where he used to work.

The problem, says ranger Karl Pierce, is that many local residents are unaware that a national park even exists in the Santa Monica Mountains. "I talk to people and tell them where I work, and they don't know where it is," he says. "They'll drive up to Mammoth or Big Bear, not realizing we are right here, 45 minutes from downtown. Sometimes I think I should carry park brochures with me everywhere I go."

Ranger Jaquie Stiver, who joined the Santa Monica Mountains in April after stints in the Florida Everglades, Rocky Mountains and Yellowstone, is surprised that so many people are unfamiliar with the area.

"When I worked in the other parks, people would see me in my uniform and know I am their park ranger," she says. "But here, people see me in my uniform and ask if I am down from Yosemite. They have no idea they live so close to these beautiful hiking trails and picnic spots."

Pierce admits that before he worked in the mountains, he, too, was guilty of not appreciating all it has to offer. "I would drive up and down the 101, and I didn't know what was here. I didn't see those gorgeous canyons tucked in the mountains or the beautiful forested areas or the rolling hills. From the freeway, all I saw was development, without understanding these hills have so much life and beauty in them."

The Santa Monica Mountains are "not a park that rangers dream of transferring to," says Stiver. Los Angeles' cars-and-concrete culture isn't green enough, and the cost of living is just too high. She points out that she pays almost twice as much to rent a room as she spent for an entire apartment in the Florida Everglades.

"But once we get here, we become converts," she says. "Yes, there's the city traffic and pollution, but there's also the unique plant communities, the abundant wildlife and the beautiful waterfalls. And the opportunity to meet and convert the unconverted urban public makes it worth it."

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