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San Gabriel River Backers Push for National Ranking

Preservation: Rep. Solis leads a drive for federal aid and recognition of the watershed's urban oasis.

July 22, 2001|JOE MOZINGO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine the unwitting tourists, hunkered over the Fodor's guide at the Taco Bell, absolutely flummoxed over where to set up their pup tent on Peck Road.

Could this graffiti-tagged stretch of South El Monte really be the national park? The natural destination between Yosemite and Joshua Tree?

According to Rep. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte), it could. Or at least she hopes it could be a national recreation area. Last week, she introduced a bill to allocate $200,000 for the Department of the Interior to study the idea of bringing the San Gabriel River watershed under the control of the National Park Service.

Solis hopes the federal agency's money and expertise in land management could infuse some momentum into a slow-going effort to revive the river.

"Most people laugh when I mention the San Gabriel River" said Solis, who discussed her legislation at a news conference Saturday. "We need to change that. . . . The federal government must work with state and local governments to preserve and create more open space in urban areas."

She said the agency is keen on the idea of bringing the river into the national park system and that the bill has 30 co-sponsors. Yet the vision of a natural place tourists would care to visit is a long way away.

Natural Beauty. Freeway-Close

As Solis spoke next to a willow-lined pond on the river in South El Monte, trucks rumbled by on the Pomona and 605 freeways in full view. There were no picnic tables or campsites or soccer fields. Although a bike and horse trail flanked the water, many of the cyclists, wearing paint-splattered jeans and heavy boots, seemed more likely to be on their way to work than out to enjoy the scenery.

The scene illustrated the ambiguity of the river and its centerpiece, Whittier Narrows. There is subtle beauty to be found in places, but it's often obscured by trash or doesn't offer the amenities that attract visitors. At the same time, the open space is in high demand, surrounded by densely populated neighborhoods in La Puente, Rosemead, San Gabriel and El Monte.

"We need a clean environment for the people here," said Solis. "Money is the big factor. This is a good boost."

As a state senator in 1999, Solis created a state conservancy for the San Gabriel watershed and a lower bit of the Los Angeles River. Physical changes along the watercourses are yet to result from that, and the congresswoman hopes federal involvement can give the river movement more credibility.

She's also looking west, where a broad coalition of politicians and environmentalists have managed to get more than $80 million allocated to the Los Angeles River, including two proposed state parks near downtown. Solis has been somewhat of a lone voice for the San Gabriel--which still contains natural, meandering stretches on its way from the San Gabriel Mountains to the ocean at Long Beach.

"In the environmental community, we usually try to lead political leaders in our direction," said Jeff Yann, chairman of the Sierra Club's San Gabriel Valley Task Force. "In the case of Hilda Solis, we usually have to jump in behind because she's ahead of us."

The San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy plans to spend $2 million in state funds to buy a parcel next to Whittier Narrows and is negotiating to buy 57 acres along the San Gabriel River and the 605, which until recently housed a duck farm known for its foul smell.

Still, the effort is plodding along. The agency has not bought a major parcel and is still working on its master plan for the rivers. Mary Angle, the executive officer, said she has yet to move into her office.

"We're still getting our feet on the ground," she said.

Yann said that once the conservancy approves its master plan, progress will speed up. He hopes the park service can help bring together the many jurisdictions in the area--more than 60 cities--and connect the fragmented bits of open space into a park.

"The National Park Service is a quality act," he said. "They know how to run parks and they can bring that cohesiveness."

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