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Trashed

Isn't this litter lovely? It's just a drop in the dumpster, Hilda Munoz reports, at the trashiest forest in California, a place where culture and language barriers keep the garbage piled high.

October 21, 2003|Hilda Munoz | Special to The Times

If official anti-pollution spokesbird Woodsy Owl were more multicultural, it might be easier to find a clean place to spread out in California's filthiest national forest. As matters stand, though, the Aparacio family has learned to put on mental blinders when they set out to enjoy Los Angeles' nearby nature.

For $5, the price of a one-day U.S. Forest Service Adventure Pass, Jose Aparacio and his wife can escape the smoggy urban sprawl. In less than an hour their young children can be splashing in a cool, gurgling current. But the price of quick, cheap recreation is sensory compromise.

"I wanted to stay over there because it was pretty," Aparacio says in Spanish, as he sits on the bank of the San Gabriel River's east fork, under an awning of leaves. But at the base of the tree toward which he's pointing lies a heap of food-smeared paper plates, cans and other picnic debris. A few feet from the shady spot where his 3-year-old naps, a foam cup bobs in the stream. Elsewhere on the river, dirty diapers drift along like soiled icebergs. "If things continue," says Aparacio, a native of El Salvador, "this place is going to become a dump."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 23, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Director's name -- In an article on trash in Angeles National Forest that ran in Tuesday's Outdoors section, the name of the director of environmental economics research at the Instituto Nacional de Ecologia in Mexico was misspelled. His name is Carlos Munoz-Pina, not Carlos Munoz-Piza.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 28, 2003 Home Edition Outdoors Part F Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Director's name -- In a story on trash in the Angeles National Forest that ran last Tuesday, the name of the director of environmental economics research at the Instituto Nacional de Ecologia in Mexico was misspelled. His name is Carlos Munoz-Pina, not Carlos Munoz-Piza.

Susan Argent, a resident at a trailer park within the forest, thinks she understands at least part of the problem: "You're dealing with a lot of people that do not speak English," she says. And, she adds, many of them are immigrants who don't have the same attitudes about picking up trash as most people who grow up in the United States.

Such comments would be offensive if they weren't accurate. And pointless if they didn't contain the crux of a possible solution. "Most of the signs are in English," Argent continues. "We need something bilingual -- a campaign that says whatever you bring in you take out with you."

In some parts of Southern California, it's mainly white guys who pig up the wilds, shotgunning outhouses, ripping doughnuts with their 4x4s, leaving old couches, beer cans and bullet casings strewn along the creeks. People of every other background also have their shameless nature defilers, no doubt. But along the San Gabriel River, most of those frolicking and picnicking are Latinos, and so it's largely neat and tidy Latinos who have to pick their way through squalor left by Latinos who are not.

In part, the problem is sheer numbers: 2 million to 3 million people a year pile in the car and punch through the smog-hemmed Angeles National Forest northeast of Los Angeles. They grab snacks at a gas station or convenience store on Highway 39 in Azusa -- the busiest portal into the 650,000-acre forest -- and thread up the canyon to the dozens of day use/picnic areas. As many as 10,000 people picnic along the San Gabriel River's forks on a typical warm-weather Sunday.

"It's literally at the back door of millions of people," says Matt Mathes, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman. "It's what we call an urban national forest." As such, San Gabriel Canyon produces almost 200 tons of garbage each year, much of it collected from bins but an alarming volume hand-plucked from the hillsides, trails and streambeds by maintenance workers and hordes of organized volunteers. The mess-makers far outpace the maids. "This will be a quarter full by the end of the day," says ranger Patrick Hersey, flipping open a bear-proof bin near the Oaks picnic area. "All the trash will be out there," he says, pointing to the river.

Just watch: Early in the morning on weekends and holidays, dozens of families lug charcoal or propane-fueled grills, sleeping bags, hammocks, lawn chairs, towels and monster coolers stocked with food down by the river. They claim a shady spot.

By midafternoon older kids fence with sticks, using side-by-side portable johns as cover. Younger ones leapfrog among boulders and then, wading, roll smaller rocks into shin-high dams.

Most begin packing up late in the afternoon. By the seep of twilight a steady trickle of visitors dumps garbage in one of the forest's big brown refuse bins. Some fumble with the bear-proof lids -- the instructions have peeled off the metal -- and, frustrated, sling their bags to the ground. Others who arrived earlier with full arms leave empty-handed. Their bottles, cans, wrappers and cigarette butts join the resident litter pocketed in virtually every natural cleft and scruff of underbrush along this stretch of river.

Revenue from the $5 daily or $30 annual Adventure Pass has nearly doubled the quarter-million-dollar maintenance budget for the canyon, says San Gabriel River District ranger Marty Dumpis. Half-a-million dollars are spent every year removing graffiti, cleaning bathrooms, picking up litter and on other services. The extra cash flow increased the size of the cleaning crew and the number of new bear-proof dumpsters, he says. Still, the litter falls like sycamore leaves in autumn.

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