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Laboring on the Backbone Trail

Recreation: Volunteers spend National Trails Day sprucing up part of the roughly 65-mile corridor, almost finished after 30 years.

June 02, 2002|STEVE HYMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To get work like this, a person usually has to face a judge.

But in the hills above Malibu on Saturday, about 65 volunteers were spending National Trails Day performing hard labor on one of their loves, the Backbone Trail.

With shovels and clippers in hand, they spruced up a few miles of the path near Kanan Dume Road, while brushing away sweat and hungry ticks.

Most were there, they said, because at some time or another, a footpath had taken them to some special place.

"The history of trails," volunteer Kurt Loheit said, "is the history of this country."

Although little known to most in the Southland, the Backbone is finally nearing completion after 30 years of work. The path will allow hikers, bikers or equestrians to go from Will Rogers State Park in the Pacific Palisades up the spine of the Santa Monica Mountains to Point Mugu State Park in Ventura County.

About 60 miles of trail are done and another four miles are under construction. That leaves a gap of two to three miles that could be finished in the next few years, pending a handful of property acquisitions by the National Park Service.

"You can come up here from the city and walk for 30 or 40 minutes on the trail and get the remoteness and wilderness without driving all the way to the Sierra," said Marcel Gillet, a park service trail supervisor.

"That's the point. The trail is a corridor that gets you back to nature without damaging the resources."

Work on the trail comes at a time when two bills in Congress propose a feasibility study on doubling the size of the surrounding Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

The area was founded in 1978 in response to rampant development in the Santa Monicas. It was originally intended to connect three state parks--Topanga, Malibu Creek and Point Mugu--but many other parcels have since been added.

The park covers most of the western half of the Santa Monicas. But within that area, about 54% of the land, or 76,000 acres, is still privately owned with the rest managed by a variety of agencies, most notably California State Parks and the National Park Service.

The bills--sponsored by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)--call for the park service to study a concept called the "Rim of the Valley Corridor."

If found to be a viable idea, the park service could eventually be allowed to purchase land from willing sellers, with the most coveted areas in the Simi Hills and the Verdugo Mountains.

The idea is to connect the Santa Monicas to the Los Padres and Angeles national forests in the Santa Susana and San Gabriel mountains.

Park officials and conservationists are worried that development would turn the Santa Monicas into an "ecological island," in effect cutting off wildlife from surrounding habitats the animals desperately need to survive.

The thinking goes that the more ecosystems are sliced up and isolated, the more likely it is they'll lose a few key species and then completely unravel.

"It's an open question how much longer we can enjoy some of the wildlife with the encroachment that's going on, and that's one of the incentives to protect this area and make sure it's well managed," Schiff said.

When the recreation area was created in 1978, there were many--even within the park service--who didn't believe the Santa Monicas were worthy of being managed by the same agency that oversees treasures such as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone.

"There was a prejudice that anything that close to L.A. can't be good," says Joe Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

And yet, the closer the Santa Monicas have been examined, the more that has been found. There are, for instance, about 450 animal species in the range. Mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes and mule deer get top billing, but there's also ringtail, badgers and southern steelhead trout.

There are also 50 plants or animals whose existence is threatened.

In addition, there are 1,000 known Native American archeological sites, and it's widely assumed at least a few trails in the Santa Monicas have been used for thousands of years.

Where today's hikers walk, so did Chumash and grizzly bears. Hikers say one of the Backbone's main attractions is that those who walk it will see a little of everything the Santa Monicas have to offer, from ocean views to eerie sandstone formations to oak savannas.

Milt McAuley of Canoga Park has seen more than most. The author of seven field guides, McAuley was one of the early advocates of the Backbone and spent long days in the 1970s and '80s bushwhacking through the thick chaparral--no small feat--to determine the best route for the trail.

"Ten years ago I told the park service that I'm going to be around to see this thing finished," he said. "They all laughed."

McAuley is 83. In early May he walked the entire length of the Backbone over seven days.

And on Saturday, with pruners in hand, he walked part of it once more.

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