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    Is Biden’s boost enough to build new river access, restrooms at overused area of San Gabriel Mountains?
    • June 12, 2024

    An ambitious plan to completely transform a popular day-use area in the Angeles National Forest, heavily damaged by hordes of visitors and offering woefully insufficient amenities, has sat on the shelf for eight years.

    But when the 2016 concept plan for the East Fork/Cattle Canyon Project located on a bend in the San Gabriel River in the canyon just north of Azusad was mentioned by President Joe Biden during his expansion of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument in May, the project took on a new life.

    A pile of trash left behind along the San Gabriel River East Fork in the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument is seen on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023. Now a plan to revitalize the East Fork area could break ground in early 2025. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
    A schematic shows the improvements planned for the Oaks area access, a portion of the 2.5-mile stretch of the East Fork of the San Gabriel River in Azusa Canyon in the Angeles National Forest and San Gabriel Mountains National Monument in a concept plan originally conceived in 2016. (image by Lynne Dwyer, landscape architect/BlueGreen Consulting).

    Still, even a presidential push may not be enough for this project to become a reality. Delays and underfunding, both familiar themes with projects involving the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument’s manager — the U.S. Forest Service — could doom improvement of this natural spot where thousands come each year to play in the river, barbecue, picnic and gain relief from the heat and other urban pressures.

    The project would would add 270 parking spaces, six river access points, 10 restrooms, six picnic areas, a 2-mile river trail and bus/tram stops along a 2.5-mile stretch of the East Fork. It is estimated to cost $20 million to $30 million. The Water Conservation Authority (WCA), the lead on the project, has received about $2.5 million from the state Rivers and Mountains Conservancy and is searching for more funds.

    “It is a critical project and it still needs a lot more funding. You will probably need a big donor to come in. I don’t believe the state, nor the federal government, can offset this cost gap,” said Nathan Nunez, founder of The Canyon City Environmental Project, a local nonprofit.

    Trash left behind in East Fork area. The Canyon City Environmental Project began a cleanup there on July 30, 2023. In the first three hours volunteers with the group removed over a ton of trash. (photo courtesy of Canyon City Environmental Project.)

    His group leads cleanup efforts along the project area. In July and August of last year, his group removed tons of trash left behind by visitors. They collected one ton of trash in the first three hours, he said. “It was trash in the river, big trash piles on the side of the river and on the side of the road. Trash was everywhere and anywhere,” he said.

    Nunez is a descendant of Indigenous peoples from a Native American San Gabriel Mountain village called Japchivit, so he’s vested in seeing his ancient homeland beautified.

    The USFS admits that with 4.6 million visitors a year, it can’t handle the load, especially in the East Fork areas. “The intense level of use, especially on peak days, can create management challenges that include excess trash, inadequate bathroom capacity, overflow parking that impairs emergency access, and adverse impacts to fragile water ecosystems,” according to a document released by the USFS recently.

    John Monsen, a Sierra Club member who founded the group’s Forest Committee/Angeles Chapter, said Biden’s mention of the Cattle Canyon/East Fork project was not a trivial push. “I think there is a real commitment to this and I think it is going to happen,” he said.

    Project early delays

    Biden’s written materials about the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument said the East Fork/Cattle Canyon project would break ground later this year. But the WCA has said this month they’re hoping for groundbreaking in early 2025. Needed permits from state and federal agencies have delayed the start.

    The first delays came soon after it was conceived, after President Barack Obama designated the monument in 2014, since the East Fork area is in the original monument boundary.

    The Bungee America group, which operates off the Bridge to Nowhere near the bighorn Sheep Wilderness Area, sued the USFS. The private enterprise said the concept plan would not provide enough parking. Customers often park in that part of the forest and hike the rest of the way to the bungee jumping area off the bridge in a remote canyon.

    Monsen said the litigation stalled the project for four years. Later, the Covid-19 pandemic delayed any work for at least three years. “It is a project that has gone through some really bad luck,” he said, adding that he believes the WCA can build the first of five phases starting early next year.

    Nola Eaglin-Talmage of the WCA, and the project manager, also believes the first phase at the Oaks Picnic area access will start on time. “I believe we will have the full funding. Everyone wants this to happen, including the Forest Service,” she said on June 5.

    Amenities, river access

    The concept plan has five improvement areas from west to east, each with an array of amenities: Oaks Canyon Picnic/Access Area, Junction Area, Confluence Area, Coyote Flat and Heaton Flat.

    Phase one would start at Oaks Canyon, with Heaton Flat the next phase, she said. The Oaks area has the most crowds and the most trash left behind. The East Fork, a source of drinking water for the region, has had so much trash in it that the local water board called the river water “impaired,” and requires the USFS to monitor total trash levels in the river, Eaglin-Talmage said.

    “It becomes an important public green space to cool off in the middle of a hot summer,” she said. “That area (Oaks Canyon) received too much recreation for what it can actually handle. There have been horrible incidents of tons of trash being left behind from holiday weekends.”

    People also build rock dams in the river, choking off oxygen for the endangered Santa Ana sucker fish. Moving the rocks can also destroy the fish’s spawning areas. Signs saying “no dams” will be posted, Eaglin-Talmage said.

    The plan also calls for multiple river access points at each area, to unclog the logjam of people at Oaks “and disperse the human impact by providing more options,” she said.

    The plan calls for making it safer to reach the river, and in more than one place, along the 2.5-mile stretch. “It is such a high recreation area that people are accessing the river by scrambling down the side of a hill,” she said.

    “We would have gradual trails with reasonable access. We would stabilize the path so you could more safety get yourself down there,” said Eaglin-Talmage. The river access paths would be made of decomposed granite and have concrete stairs and railings.

    Also at the Oaks access, people stack park, often preventing a car from leaving if there’s an emergency, she said. Also people block access to trash trucks, making them unable to collect trash from the forest Dumpsters. “There is no formal parking so people are wild west, parking on the side of the road,” said Eaglin-Talmage. The plan calls for adding 270 parking spots mostly along the river retaining wall.

    A key part of the plan is to build recreational areas with trees, shade structures, benches, picnic grounds, more restrooms and a grassy area so people can lay down a blanket and view the river below — something not possible today because of the steep slopes and dense foliage.

    “We are creating a park-like setting above the river. A really big option where you can see the river from up there. The whole area will be beautiful,” said Eaglin-Talmage.

    In phase two at Coyote Flat, the plan calls for a scenic river overlook, seat walls, native trees, a perimeter path and a geology hut. Plus restrooms and picnic sites. Stairs from the parking area would lead across a boardwalk bridge to a botanical interpretive trail. Low on the priority list are shuttle stops for the Mount Wilson Express, a proposed shuttle that would connect from an A Line train station to the national forest/monument.

    The Confluence Area would have river access, a new single restroom, a pedestrian bridge and a shuttle stop.

    While all these amenities have been studied and approved in an Environmental Impact Report finished in October 2018 and a federal Environmental Impact Statement  completed in August 2019, they may not all get built. In the later phases, what actually gets built depends on the amount of funding in hand, said Eaglin-Talmage.

    Even if the first two phases are completed, the area would be changed dramatically. Whether it is enough to prevent overcrowding and littering remains to be seen, said Nunez. He said the USFS and Caltrans must do a better job limiting the number of people into the Angeles and the national monument via Highway 39 in Azusa.

    “There still needs to be a conversation on the number of people who visit this area. It is a capacity issue,” he said.

    Monsen said even completing the first phase of this project would be historic and without precedent. “It is a great example of giving momentum, to show something can be done to improve visitor services within the national monument,” he said.

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    ​ Orange County Register