The San Gabriel Mountains: A National Monument for All

December 1, 2014, Department, by Robert García and Michelle Kao

The San Gabriels National Monument includes 346,177 acres of national forest land.President Barack Obama designated a national monument in the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California to promote environmental quality, economic vitality and health for all on October 10, 2014. This is a historic moment, when the president recognizes that green access is a social justice issue and agencies need to address these values. His words and actions resonate with NRPA’s Three Pillars: Conservation, Health and Wellness, and Social Equity.

“That’s what makes this particular designation so important,” President Obama said. “We heard from the community…Too many children in L.A. County, especially children of color, don’t have access to parks where they can run free, breathe fresh air, experience nature and learn about their environment. This is an issue of social justice. Because it’s not enough to have this awesome natural wonder within your sight — you have to be able to access it.”

Improving public access helps address equally important health justice values. According to the White House, studies show that increasing recreational access to public lands translates to higher levels of youth activity and lower youth obesity rates.

The National Park Service (NPS) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) agree. Communities with the least amount of parks and open space tend to have higher rates of childhood diseases related to obesity such as diabetes, according to the NPS study on the San Gabriels. Los Angeles is one of the most disadvantaged counties in terms of access to park and open space for people of color, particularly children. Non-Hispanic white people have 12 to 15 times more park acreage per capita than Latinos and African-Americans. According to USACE, much of Los Angeles is park-deficient, with less than 3 acres of green space per 1,000 residents. Park access is lowest in areas with the highest number of families below an annual household income of $47,331. Environmental justice requires agencies to address these disparities, according to both agencies, citing Executive Order 12898 on environmental justice and health. The NPS and USACE studies are best practices for an environmental justice framework to address park, health and conservation values and outcomes. San Gabriel advocates relied on these best practices in comments submitted to the president, and John Podesta in the White House, in August 2014.

The Presidential Proclamation also recognizes the role of Native Americans in the rich cultural history of the San Gabriels. In part, it reads, “Native American history runs deep, at least 8,000 years, including the best preserved example of a Gabrielino pictograph rock painting.” The management plan for the monument “shall protect and preserve Indian sacred sites…and access by Indian tribal members for traditional cultural, spiritual, and tree and forest product-, food- and medicine-gathering purposes.”

The San Gabriel Mountains are a core part of the Los Angeles landscape, providing 70 percent of the open space for residents and 30 percent of their drinking water. More than 15 million people live within 90 minutes of the mountains. According to the president, “This incredible 346,000 acres of rugged slopes and remote canyons are home to an extraordinary diversity of wildlife. The rare Arroyo Chub swims through the cool streams, while the California condor soars above the vistas. You can hike through the chaparral, amid wild lilacs and mountain mahogany.”

These diverse values have been well-received. Daniel Rossman, chair of the San Gabriel Mountains Forever coalition (SGMF), said, “The president not only displayed compassion and understanding of environmental justice but was fundamentally motivated by the issues when he declared the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. The City Project thanks for your work to make the case for environmental justice and the San Gabriel National Monument a reality.”

The recognition of Native American values receives praise from Robert Bracamontes, Acjachemen Nation, Nican Tlaca, who grew up nearby and continues to visit the San Gabriel Mountains with his family. “To see those words in writing used by the president in the proclamation, ‘preserve and protect sacred sites,’ brings me a great sense of hope. For indigenous people, the land gives us food, a place to play, a place where we are put to rest in peace, a place for ceremony, a place where life and culture are one. We need our land, we need to protect it for future generations,” says Bracamontes.

George Sánchez-Tello, who teaches at California State University-Northridge and oversees the SGMF Leadership Academy, emphasizes the essential role of local community groups. “While traditional conservation organizations, like the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club, were key allies, the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument would not exist without the support of local environmental justice, education and immigrant-advocacy groups. This scenario will play out across the country in future public land campaigns as communities of color and urban populations continue to grow.”

“The City Project’s work on park access is one of the two leading areas in environmental justice,” according to Leslie Fields, national director of environmental justice and community partnership at the Sierra Club.

A key argument for creating the monument is to give the U.S. Forest Service money and staff to maintain trails, creeks and picnic areas damaged by overuse. Under the Proclamation, the secretaries of agriculture and the interior will prepare a management plan with maximum public involvement, including consultation with tribal, state and local government, as well as community environmental conservation, health and justice organizations. Congresswoman Judy Chu has also introduced legislation to create a San Gabriel national recreation area, which would bring in NPS oversight, money and focus on recreation. The goal remains for the Forest Service and NPS to work together to meet the needs of the people as defined by the people. This is a simple concept; it’s called sharing.

Not all people have access to the San Gabriels. People of color and low-income people visit national park land at disproportionately low rates, but not because they do not value the environment, health and outdoor recreation. This is evident in NPS’s findings that “economically disadvantaged populations in the [area] lack access and the ability to partake of existing opportunities due to lack of close-to-home open space, lack of effective transportation, lack of culturally advantageous facilities or opportunities, and lack of knowledge about recreation and natural resources.”

One solution is the Transit to Trails program developed by Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA), NPS, Anahuak Youth Sports Association and The City Project with diverse allies. Transit to Trails provides opportunities for park-poor, income-poor communities to learn about water, land, wildlife and cultural history, and engage in healthy physical activity. Transit to Trails is a best practice according to NPS, and will help increase access to the San Gabriels, as emphasized in the president’s speech.

Monument status is only the latest milestone to enhance the San Gabriels for all. Hilda Solis, who originally called for the national recreation area as a congresswoman, will help implement the management plan as a county supervisor and wrote the California statutory definition of environmental justice as a state legislator.

The struggle for green justice continues. No sooner had the president designated the monument than the L.A. Times argued that he didn’t go far enough by protecting only portions of the San Gabriels. The Times editorial ignores the practical and symbolic value of the president recognizing the San Gabriels are not just a land use but a civil rights issue. The president also acted because Congress is not likely to act soon on the legislation for the national recreation area.

Partisan critics argue President Obama abused his power by taking executive action, but the value of protecting the San Gabriels transcends politics and time. Republican presidents have protected the San Gabriels for more than 100 years. Benjamin Harrison created the forerunner of the Angeles National Forest in 1892, Teddy Roosevelt transferred the land from the Department of the Interior to Agriculture in 1905, and Calvin Coolidge divided the Angeles and the San Bernardino National Forests in 1926.

National monuments play an important role in supporting local economies, according to the White House. Jobs and apprenticeships for youth, and diversification of government contracts to involve local workforce, can promote economic vitality for all. Forest Service crews have already been out enhancing lands and improving trails and recreation sites. Almost 200 jobs and educational experiences have been created as the Forest Service hired youth crews from the Youth Conservation Corps, California Conservation Corps and the San Gabriel Valley Conservation Corps in the past two months. Economic vitality also requires addressing gentrification and displacement by increasing home ownership and support for small businesses as communities become greener and more desirable. Otherwise, lower-income residents will no longer be able to live or work nearby.

Grassroots groups are vital in the struggle for the San Gabriels, but mainstream environmentalists receive vastly more funding. They are in a gold rush to seek funding from the greening of the San Gabriels and the L.A. River. Increasing the number of people of color in mainstream environmental organizations is important, but it’s still not enough. Government agencies and foundations must ensure equal funding for local environmental justice and grassroots groups, or diverse values at stake for the community will not be represented. Funding for organizations where conservation, health and social justice are integral to their values and culture is key to enhance the San Gabriels, and to transform the environmental movement to reflect the new California and the critical electorate of Latinos, African Americans, young people and single mothers. California surveys show that Latinos, African Americans and Asian Americans have been the biggest supporters of park bond measures, and the most concerned about the environment.

The City Project has been working to diversify access to and support for the San Gabriels since 2001, working with nontraditional partners and SGMF. We will continue to support (1) implementation of a national monument management plan, (2) proposed legislation for a national recreation area, and for wilderness and wild and scenic river designations, and (3) compliance with environmental and health justice laws and principles, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Executive Order 12898 on environnental justice and health. 

President Obama has designated 13 national monuments, and has personally traveled to designate only two: the San Gabriels and the Cesar Chavez National Monument. Cesar Chavez is the first national monument in the U.S. dedicated to a Latino born after the 1700s, according to NPS. The president has preserved 3 million acres of public lands. 

President Obama spoke eloquently in the San Gabriels: “My commitment to conservation isn’t about locking away our natural treasures; it’s about working with communities to open up our glorious heritage to everybody — young and old, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American — to make sure everybody can experience these incredible gifts.” That is the promise of the San Gabriel Mountains with green justice for all.

Robert García is the Founding Director and Counsel of The City Project and an Assistant Professor, Community Faculty, at the Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science. He served as a keynote speaker at the 2014 NRPA Congress. Michelle Kao, UCLA ‘15, is an Intern for The City Project.