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Taking back the Angeles National Forest

The resolve that created the picturesque recreation area will be needed again to undo the damage of fire and neglect.

September 13, 2009

Just as it strains the imagination to picture a universe that stretches to infinity, we struggle to visualize a quarter of the Angeles National Forest burned to the ground. What does that look like, 160,000 blackened acres? It looks like forever.

Nature, of course, takes the long view. Except for the extinction of species, little is forever. Flowers will crop up in the spring, then sage scrub and chaparral. Trees will require decades, but even that amounts to a brief moment in the evolution of an ecosystem.

Not so for mere humans. The Angeles is this county's great escape, a place where we can walk for miles without seeing a housing development or even a car. It has running streams amid forests in a metropolitan area where the word "river" usually dredges up images of a damp-bottomed concrete trench. U.S. Forest Service teams are tallying the precise toll of the Station fire, but there is no doubt that the loss of inexpensive recreation will be huge. Many favored trails, such as pristine Devil's Canyon or the swimming holes of Big Tujunga, might be off-limits to visitors for years, and when they are reopened will look sadly alien, populated by the blackened skeletons of pine, oak and alder. The fire appears to have burned through many of the forest's most popular and easily accessible sites: Devil's Canyon, parts of the Gabrielino Trail and areas around Switzer Falls.

Even more lasting damage might be wrought by landslides during the winter rains. After the 2007 Santiago fire, a slide in Harding Canyon -- one of the most picturesque spots of the Cleveland National Forest -- buried the seven deep pools of crystalline water for which the canyon was known, along with the canyon's entire population of trout. Harding and adjacent areas are still closed to the public, nearly two years later. And that blaze was less than one-fifth the size of the Station fire.

It will take vision, patience and an enormous effort to restore the scarred Angeles, even with nature doing most of the work. At points in its past, this country had the kind of will it took to accomplish such feats on a grand scale, as evidenced by the creation of the national forest and national park systems, and the major projects undertaken by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Now, the damage wrought in these lands by climate change and more frequent fires calls on us to be up to the task again.

Southern Californians love the Angeles National Forest; sometimes they love it to death. Up to 5 million people visit it each year, from seasoned backpackers on ambitious expeditions to families strolling the shaded beauty of the upper Arroyo Seco, just above the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Its popularity and heavy use are easy to understand. Wrapped in housing tracts up to its edges, the green, open land offers respite from the beige of concrete and stucco.

Even more extraordinary is the foresight that created the Angeles along with the entire system of national parks and forests. Back when the West was an almost unbroken stretch of open land, what led politicians and citizens of the late 1800s and early 1900s (the Angeles was established in 1908) to embrace the preservation of the nation's greatest natural treasures?

A PBS documentary by Ken Burns will answer this question in lavish detail beginning Sept. 27. An extensive segment of the six-part series rightly focuses on Theodore Roosevelt, who was instrumental in establishing the first national park, Yellowstone, years before he became president. An avid outdoorsman and hunter as well as a scholar, he added to the park system as president and set aside much of the separate forest system as well.

The preservation of this wilderness for public use and appreciation was among the most democratic accomplishments in U.S. history. In Europe, as the documentary points out, natural treasures were mostly held in private hands by the aristocracy; here, they belong to the people. A diverse array of Americans played major roles in protecting these lands. George Melendez Wright, a field biologist of Latin American heritage, almost single-handedly refocused the mission of the National Park Service from packing in as many tourists as possible to preserving wilderness in its undisturbed state. The Buffalo Soldiers, African American troops, were the first rangers in Yosemite and Sequoia national parks.

And 3 million men of varied backgrounds found food and jobs with the Civilian Conservation Corps, started during the Depression by another President Roosevelt, Franklin. They cut nearly 100,000 miles of fire roads and planted 3 billion trees, almost half the total reforestation carried out in this nation's history.

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