More than 700,000 acres of the San Gabriel Mountains, River and Valley and Puente Hills were deemed nationally significant and therefore suitable for inclusion in the National Park system, according to a report released Monday by the U.S. Department of Interior.
The Draft San Gabriel Watershed and Mountains Special Resource Study concluded that the mountains and the Puente Hills met the criteria for a national designation and that all or portions could come under federal protection and management if approved by Congress.
The study could pave the way for part of the region being named a National Recreation Area – a designation environmentalists and community health advocates have been pushing for for years.
“We are exploring ways we can conserve this important landscape and improve recreational opportunities for the community…” said Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in a prepared statement.
Environmental groups rejoiced at the news, saying the recognition from the Department of Interior could lead to more rangers, improved facilities and infrastructure, and better access to green space for Whittier and San Gabriel Valley area residents.
“It is a big, big deal. We couldn’t be more delighted,” said Bob Henderson, a Whittier city councilman and chair of the Puente Hills Habitat Preservation Authority.Henderson’s group supported the effort back in 2005 when the study was just getting under way. By bringing in the National
Park Service, the Puente/Whittier Hills would have better maintained trails, more trail guides and maps and other service improvements, he said.
The study suggests three different alternatives for how to include the region in the National Park system. The first one, Alternative A, simply would make the San Gabriel Mountains a National Recreation Area.
Alternative C would focus on the San Gabriel River and its watershed, improving recreational and educational opportunities along the river and creating a model for a new national park.
The final alternative – Alternative D – would envelop the most acreage and would include the mountains, the rivers and the Puente Hills, as well as urban communities in the area, as part of a National Recreation Area.
Alternative B was eliminated.
In all three, the U.S. Forest Service would still manage the Angeles National Forest. But the new NRA would be managed through a collaborative effort led by the National Park Service, along with the Forest Service and other agencies and organizations with land interests.
The National Park Service concluded the final alternative would be the “environmentally preferable alternative,” said Daniel Rossman who’s with San Gabriel Mountains Forever. The group is made up of conservation groups, faith-based groups and business owners.
Claire Robinson, president of Amigos de los Rios, an Altadena-based group that has built new parks in El Monte, said Alternative D will include poorer communities and denuded areas in need of repair, such as those located along the concrete-lined Rio Hondo River.
“The NPS is shifting its focus to include urban areas,” Robinson said. “That is a huge paradigm shift which we wholly embrace.”
Henderson and Robinson pointed out the study does not recommend condemning private land.
“There is no taking of private land. It is leveraging 95 years of National Parks Service experience,” she said.
The effort began in 2003 when then Rep. Hilda Solis, who grew up in Bassett and would play in the Whittier Narrows and along the San Gabriel River’s edge with her family, introduced federal legislation with Sen. Barbara Boxer to study making the local mountains and rivers a National Recreation Area. It received a huge boost in 2010 under President Barack Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative when many residents turned out for public hearings.
Solis on Monday encouraged residents of the region to attend public meetings on the draft study planned for this month and next to “share their feelings, so we can ensure that future generations can enjoy this national treasure for years to come.”
A hearing will be held Oct. 29, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., at the El Monte Senior Center, 3120 N. Tyler Ave. Another public hearing will also be held Nov. 15, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., at Cal Poly Pomona’s Agriscapes Center, 4102 S. University Drive, Pomona.
Other hearings will be held in Santa Clarita, Palmdale and Tujunga.
After the hearings Salazar will present a recommendation to Congress for approval.
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