San Gabriel Mountains: Huge Federal Restrictions by Presidential Edict
The President, without consulting Congress, grabbed a huge swath of public lands in the San Gabriels for so-called “Federal protection.” He bowed under pressure from special interests in L.A. – a wealthy and influential group of elite environmentalist do-gooders – to restrict access to the mountains and create a whole new level of bureaucracy. This was just the beginning in a whole series of federal land grabs.
It sounds like I’m one of those protesters who showed up a couple of weeks ago to boo the President’s designation of the San Gabriel Mountains as a national monument, but I’m not. The President I’m referring to is not Barack Obama, but Benjamin Harrison, and the year I’m referencing is 1892. That’s the year that the San Gabriel Mountains were first set aside by presidential edict as the “San Gabriel Timberland Reserve.” That came about as the result of lobbying by influential Los Angeles residents such as L.A. Times owner Harrison Gray Otis, L.A. Mayor Fred Eaton, developer Abbott Kinney (creator of Venice), and real estate investor Theodore Lukens (father of modern forestry and namesake of Mount Lukens). They used as their spokesman for this effort the one-and-only John Muir. Over the next 15 years, another 21 reserves were created in California alone, which helped form the foundation of our nation’s heritage of national parkland.
But what precipitated this unprecedented use of presidential powers? In the 1800s, America’s natural resources were exploited on a grand scale. Mining, timber and land development ran unchecked across the continent, stopping finally at the Pacific Ocean in the 1850s. The rich resources of Southern California began to suffer from unregulated exploitation. Lumbermen cut huge areas of forest, particularly around L.A. Once exposed to erosion, the trees never grew back. For example, the once-forested mountains above CV were logged out in the 1880s for firewood for Los Angeles, and have been bare ever since. Ranchers over-used fire to clear their lands for grazing. The fires often went wild, destroying property and creating ecological nightmares. Several gold strikes were made in the San Gabriels and by the 1870s hydraulic mining was in common use. Powerful jets of water were directed at hillsides, blasting the canyon walls down into the streambeds. There, massive sluices separated the gold, leaving tons of mud and polluted water to wash down to the orchards, farms and growing residential communities below.
The San Gabriels at that time were L.A.’s only source of water. Developer and rancher Abbot Kinney saw firsthand the destruction of the growing city’s water supplies by upstream mining and lumber operations, and set about to find a solution. As head of the newly created State Board of Forestry in the late 1880s, he petitioned the state and federal government to regulate commercial usage of the San Gabriels, with water conservation firmly in mind. It was, as it always is in California, all about the water! Kinney was well connected, and was able to lavishly fete President Harrison on his tour of L.A. in 1891. He and his “environmentalist do-gooder” friends undoubtedly lobbied the President hard for protection of the San Gabriels.
The nation as a whole was in a preservation mood as it sensed that the inexhaustible resources of the western frontier had finally reached bottom. In 1891, Congress created the Forest Reserve Act, which empowered the President to single-handedly declare natural areas in the public domain off-limits to exploitation. Harrison immediately set aside 13 million acres, including the San Gabriels, as “timber reserves,” restricting mining, grazing and timber harvesting. Almost all Presidents since then have taken advantage of various executive powers to place natural areas under public protection. National monument status, as the San Gabriels were granted, was done via Teddy Roosevelt’s Antiquities Act, with an orientation to history and natural science. The San Gabriels fit that designation well, as they saw California’s first gold strike, astrophysics firsts at Mount Wilson Observatory, plus groundbreaking seismic discoveries (pun intended) on the San Andreas Fault. Hopefully this new designation will refocus the purpose of this public land, its remarkable history and its potential for recreation.