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Wilderness label would protect Magic Mountain (the other one)

The peak in the Angeles National Forest, a former Nike missile site with sweeping views, is part of 750,000 acres in California the national Omnibus Public Land act would set aside.

February 15, 2009|Julie Cart

Magic Mountain, a rugged peak rising out of the Angeles National Forest, is unknown to all but the most intrepid hikers. For good reason.

The former Nike missile site -- not the amusement park of the same name -- is a Cold War remnant, one of 16 such outposts erected around Los Angeles during the 1950s as an air defense system. This battery, with its subterranean concrete missile silos, was built in 1955 and monitored by the Army until the '70s. Fenced off and closely watched, it was an area few dared to explore.

Now the site is included in the Omnibus Public Land act being considered by Congress, legislation that would set aside Magic Mountain and nearly 750,000 acres of California as wilderness.

Rising from hillsides choked with dense manzanita bushes and yucca plants, the mountain's ridges offer unencumbered views of the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys. The site would be one of the nearest wilderness areas to downtown Los Angeles.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, February 19, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 94 words Type of Material: Correction
Land preservation: An article in Sunday's California section about preserving Magic Mountain, a peak in the Angeles National Forest, described the site as 50,000 acres. The Magic Mountain site is listed as about 12,282 acres in the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, legislation that would set aside nearly 750,000 acres of California as wilderness. The article also said a Senate vote on the package had been postponed but that the issue was expected to be addressed later this month. The Senate passed the bill with amendments in January; it is pending in the House.

"When I get stressed working on the computer, I come up here and in 15 minutes I'm in this," said Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel, flinging her arms to take in the surrounding peaks, deep canyons and hidden riverbeds.

Erskine-Hellrigel, the leader of a Santa Clarita-based hiking club, has a tendency to call it "my mountain." That proprietary attitude convinced the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society to join forces with her to lobby for official wilderness designation.

Magic Mountain was a last-minute addition to a bill sponsored by Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), which calls for protection of 468,000 acres. His Eastern Sierra and Northern San Gabriel Wild Heritage Act is one of 150 bills rolled into the cumbersome omnibus package, which would set aside 2 million acres of wilderness across the country.

The package would also designate new national heritage areas, historic sites and wild and scenic rivers. It would authorize water conservation projects and restoration of the San Joaquin River. A Senate vote on the package has been postponed, but it is expected to be addressed later this month.

McKeon's legislation includes more than 60% of the omnibus act's proposed wilderness in California, but Magic Mountain was not originally included. As part of the horse trading required to get legislation passed, the 50,000-acre parcel in the San Gabriels was a last-minute addition.

Bob Haueter, McKeon's deputy chief of staff, said that when Magic Mountain was brought up for inclusion, no one in the congressman's office seemed to know where the place was.

"I literally had to get a map out," he said. "I called the congressman. He said, 'Where is it?' I said, 'Remember where you lived for all those years? Look out the window and you'd see it.' After we saw the place, it was an easy sell."

Magic Mountain exists in that ill-defined junction between crowded urban spaces and wild nature. The Angeles National Forest forms part of the rocky curtain that separates the Los Angeles Basin from the Santa Clarita Valley.

From Magic Mountain's 4,500-foot peak it's possible to watch traffic back up on the 210 Freeway, see the distant downtown skyline and observe planes descending into Burbank Airport over the Simi Hills. When conditions are right, Santa Catalina Island glistens in the distance.

The still-present missile pads are the reason for the mountain's road, which is littered with reminders of how some people choose to recreate on public lands. At one spot, two bowling trophies are blown to bits by the side of the road. The ground nearby is littered with shell casings from a shotgun, a .45 and a .22.

Erskine-Hellrigel's Community Hiking Club organized 53 trash cleanups last year, hauling off sofas, sinks, toilets, a fire pit and a martial arts dummy. Members have been hacking methodically at a car that went over the side, pulling it out piece by piece.

The trash cleanups are important for more than aesthetic reasons. The area around Magic Mountain is the summer home to a handful of California condors, which risk health problems after eating garbage. The naturally curious condors are attracted to small objects on the ground such as bottle caps and broken glass, according to Nancy Sandburg, biologist for the Angeles National Forest. Adult birds ingest the so-called microtrash. Some feed it to their chicks, whose systems cannot expel the items. Unless the chicks are discovered and removed for surgery, Sandburg said, they die.

Other rare or endangered wildlife in the area includes the arroyo toad, the Southwestern pond turtle, the least Bell's vireo and the unarmored threespine stickleback, a freshwater fish the size of a minnow.

In addition, Magic Mountain is in a critical animal corridor that links the Sierra Pelona Mountains in the north and the Santa Monicas in the south, by way of the Newhall Pass and the Santa Susanas. Dozens of species, including bears and mountain lions, follow culverts under the 14 Freeway, then move south along drainages that connect to coastal ranges.

"The Santa Clara River is a very important wildlife corridor; any riparian area in Southern California is very important to wildlife," Sandburg said. "If you can imagine a large mammal trying to cross a 12-lane freeway -- it's not possible."

To Erskine-Hellrigel, who hiked the entire area to prepare wilderness maps, Magic Mountain should be crisscrossed with corridors for hikers. There are three existing trails, and when the bill passes, she said, she's ready to establish more.

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julie.cart@latimes.com

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