In March, NFF friend and author, Char Miller, released a beautiful coffee table book called America’s Great National Forests, Wildernesses and Grasslands. We are pleased to be able to excerpt several of Miller’s thoughtful essays in a new blog series we’re calling: “In-Depth: America’s Forests from Past to Present.” The series focuses on National Forests that are part of our Treasured Landscapes, Unforgettable Experiences conservation effort. If you’re interested in learning more about the NFF’s work on these amazing landscapes, please visit nationalforests.org/treasured.
We hope you enjoy the blog series and Tim Palmer’s gorgeous photos that accompany the book and the posts. You can purchase America’s National Forests, Wildernesses and Grasslands at fine book retailers and online outlets throughout the country.
Mount Wilson may not be the tallest peak in the San Gabriel Mountains—the craggy range that serves as the spine of the Angeles National Forest, frames the northern backdrop to metropolitan Los Angeles, and annually lures millions of visitors to its boulder-strewn creeks, rugged trails, and windswept peaks. But for early 20th-century humorist Mina Deane Halsey, Mount Wilson was plenty high enough. Reaching its 5,700-foot summit, she joked, was “the nearest station to Heaven yours truly ever expects to get.”
That’s because she prayed she would never again have to ride a mule up the mountain’s rocky, switchback trail, a rough-and-tumble terrain that decades earlier John Muir had dubbed “thornily savage” and “rigidly inaccessible.” Halsey would come to share the great naturalist’s wary insight. “The trip up Mt. Wilson makes me heave many sighs,” she wrote. “In fact, I heaved so many sighs for weeks after that trip, that I had a hard time making anyone believe I had a good time. But I did.” It’s just that she had a difficult time recollecting its joys due to an unnamed burro. “It takes four—five—six or seven hours to get up the trail, and it only took me somewhere around forty minutes to come down. Of course most people don’t hurry so on the down trip, but some things are forced upon us in this world, and that jackass of mine certainly knew his business.” The many jolts and bruises notwithstanding, and despite the self-deprecating jokes she wrung from them, Halsey conceded that there “were some wonderful sights along the way,” including a glorious sunset at the trail’s end.
That she made the trek at all is a testament to the powerful place of outdoor recreation in local culture. High-country tourism in Southern California got its start in the 1880s, as Los Angeles’s population boomed and record-breaking numbers of snowbirds boarded trains in Chicago, Baltimore, or New York to experience the region’s balmy winter.
Residents new and old, transformed the San Gabriels into a playground.
The trail Halsey would ride upon followed a path that indigenous peoples first blazed centuries earlier, which was later widened to accommodate two-way traffic. Other routes were newly cut through chaparral-choked canyons and crested many of the more accessible mountains. To reach the stables, hotels, lodges, restaurants, and campgrounds constructed along these routes, the adventuresome rode the Pacific Electric streetcar directly to the trailhead. This rail-to-trail infrastructure sustained and stimulated what would be called the region’s “Great Hiking Era.”
Much of this development preceded the December 1892 creation of the San Gabriel Timberland Reserve, the first to be established in California (in 1908, the Forest Service renamed it the Angeles National Forest). Given its recreational lure and legacy, it is surprising that the energetic bustle of tourists, hikers, hoteliers, and outfitters did not figure more often in the petitions seeking the initial reserve status for the San Gabriels. Those urging the Department of the Interior, which at that time managed these public lands, to create a reserve instead pushed for federal regulation of its most critical resource—water, not tourism.
Forest advocate and real estate developer Abbot Kinney was among the first to urge the protection of these mountainous watersheds. “Native growths of brush and chaparral, scrub oak, greasewood, sagebrush” increasingly were being “removed from the land by clearing and fire,” he wrote in 1880, adding that all the “mesas are bare of verdure.” These environmental alterations left downstream communities and agriculture more vulnerable to winter flooding and summer drought. Kinney concluded in an 1886 report from the State Board of Forestry, on which he served, that “the destruction of the forests in the southern counties means the destruction of the streams, and that means the destruction of the country.”
Six years later, prominent citizens, grassroots organizers, irrigation districts, and chambers of commerce, as well as local congressional representatives, successfully appealed to Interior Secretary John W. Noble to address this problem. The secretary submitted to President Benjamin Harrison a proclamation creating the San Gabriel Reserve. It became one of 15 reserves Harrison established using the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 that had granted the chief executive authority to designate “public reservations.”
In so acting, the president was setting the stage for a radical new conception of the purposes of the public domain, those federal lands the government owned in the western states and territories. Hitherto, Congress’s ambition had been to sell or give away these many millions of acres to homesteaders, farmers, loggers, and miners—not to say railroad corporations—to encourage settlement and development. By the late 19th century, this policy had gained an array of detractors. Communities worried about the rapid depletion of local forests and grasslands, for example, found common cause with conservationists and scientists concerned that damaged environments could not be regenerated, with a corresponding loss of a sustainable economy.
These and other engaged citizens advocated for a more robust nation-state to intercede to protect the public lands and the resources they contained. The government’s protective presence would produce important results, asserted one of the petitions submitted in favor of the San Gabriel Reserve, ensuring that “the water would be preserved in the mountains, the snow saved from being speedily melted, the waters protected from pollution by large droves of cattle and sheep.”
The notion that managing nature upstream to sustain human interests downstream, and that Washington could and should resolve local disputes over resource allocation and consumption, signaled a broader desire for a more efficient and effective federal government. The call for making public life more orderly, rational, and manageable was a hallmark of Progressive Era reform and activism. Emblematic of this era’s ethos was the establishment of the initial forest reserves, as well as the later formation of the Forest Service to manage them.
The San Gabriel Mountains revealed how fire could complicate this benign scenario. The range’s topography and ecology have conspired against the human desire to exclude fire from this landscape. Muir, during a three-day hike in 1875, recorded some of the features that have frustrated firefighters ever since: sheer-walled canyons, treacherously loose soils, and ridges “weathered away to a slender knife-edge,” the whole thickly covered in a “bristly mane of chaparral.” Its hazards carried a warning.
The whole range, seen from the plain, with the hot sun beating upon its southern slopes, wears a terribly forbidding aspect. From base to summit all seems gray, barren, silent—dead, bleached bones of mountains
This terrain comes alive when it erupts in flame. At lower elevations, the dominant plant community is the fire-adapted chaparral. It provides a combustible fuel that if ignited on days of high wind, low humidity, and intense heat can create firestorms of immense and swirling power. Not everyone who has lived within the Los Angeles Basin has seen these flames as detrimental to their way of life. The indigenous people used fire to manage hillside ecosystems to produce more highly prized plants and animals. The Spanish did the same to promote grasslands for their livestock. These two groups knew enough not to live within the fire zones—the foothills, notched canyons, and upland slopes. Not so for late 19th-century outdoor enthusiasts and those seeking domestic solitude from the burgeoning city below. For these newcomers, fire became a problem that must be solved.
Their concerns were captured in newspaper accounts of the frequent conflagrations. In 1878, as fire blew up above Pasadena, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that “5 canyons were desolated . . . [and a] tongue of flames could be seen licking its way up the San Gabriel range of mountains,” a destructive image the Los Angeles Times replicated whenever the local skies turned black with smoke. “Ten-Mile Wall of Flame Rushing on Ridge Route,” one headline screamed; another mourned, “Canyon Fire Rages Unchecked.”
Public outcry turned political, generating demands for more robust firefighting forces at the local, state, and federal levels. Later, two governmental agencies would spend much of their tiny budgets each summer and fall trying to stamp out fire. One was the Forest Service, which managed the Angeles National Forest after its creation in 1905, and the other was the Los Angeles County Board of Forestry, which was founded in 1911 and oversaw one million acres of adjacent lands. A century later, their work continues to consume their time and money. “The story of ranger activity in the Angeles National Forest,” one local historian commented, “is a story primarily of fire control.”
That is still true, but contemporary fire suppression comes with even greater pressure: millions of people now live in close proximity to the national forest, making their protection job number one. Notwithstanding the advent of innovative firefighting tools such as flame-retardant-dropping aircraft, controlling fire remains as partial a solution as it was years ago. By their very nature, these lands burn.
Yet for all the Angeles’s dangers, which escalate whenever post-fire, debris-filled floods churn down the ravines and scour everything in their path, millions of people take advantage of this jagged landscape’s recreational opportunities. Perhaps like Halsey, they too test themselves against its daunting wildness, and, laughing, tell stories about how they have come up short.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Char Miller is the W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College. Author of the Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism (2004) and Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy (2012), his latest books include America’s Great National Forests, Wilderness, and Grasslands (2016), Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream (2016), On the Edge: Water, Immigration, and Politics in the Southwest (2013) and Seeking the Greatest Good: The Conservation Legacy of Gifford Pinchot (2013); he co-authored Death Valley National Park: A History (2013) and is co-editor of Forest Conservation in the Anthropocene: Science, Policy, and Practice (2016).
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Tim Palmer is the photographer and author of 24 books featuring the American landscape, including the classic photographic works Rivers of America and Trees and Forests of America. His honors include the National Outdoor Book Award, Independent Publishers Award, and Conservation Achievement Award from the National Wildlife Federation.