Expanding the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument would bring environmental justice, recreation to millions

Dec 6, 2023

By Sterling Homard

To residents of Greater Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Mountains are iconic. The snow-capped mountain peaks extend high up on the skyline, creating a picturesque backdrop for the city. They’re also within 90 miles of over 18 million people, which is one of the reasons coalition of organizations as well as California elected officials are calling on President Joe Biden to expand the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument to include 109,000 acres that were not included in the original monument designation.

The effort is led by Nature for All, an organization committed to protecting public lands and natural spaces in an equitable manner for the over 18 million people in the Greater Los Angeles region. Nature for All has been working on protecting public lands and rivers in the San Gabriel Mountains for over 15 years — in 2008, the organization formed as the San Gabriel Mountains Forever coalition to safeguard recreation, drinking water, wildlife habitat, and outdoor access. Now, the Nature for All coalition includes a diverse set of local, regional, and national organizations, all of whom work together to advocate for the monument expansion and access to green and open spaces throughout the region.

President Barack Obama recognized the historic, recreational, and scientific value of the area in 2014 by designating the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, which includes 342,177 acres of the Angeles National Forest and 4,002 acres of the neighboring San Bernardino National Forest. But there was a swath of about 109,000 acres of public land left out of the original designation, despite this area being included in initial proposals for the national monument. This area is considered the “gateway” to the Angeles National Forest, making it one of the most visited parts of the forest. In 2021, 4.6 million people visited the forest, which is more visitors than the Grand Canyon (4.5 million) or Yosemite National Park (3.3 million) received that year.

Map of the proposed San Gabriel Mountains National Monument expansion area. Photo by San Gabriel Mountains National Monument Forever, used by permission.

To help protect and provide access to the remaining 109,000 acres, Nature for All is calling on President Biden to use his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate the proposed expansion area as part of the national monument. The coalition has support from California legislators, too — in May 2023, U.S. Senator Alex Padilla and U.S. Representative Judy Chu introduced twin bills that propose adding 110,000 acres of Angeles National Forest land to the 350,000-acre San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. In June 2023, they wrote a joint letter urging President Biden to use the Antiquities Act to designate the proposed expansion area as part of the monument. Since then, there has been strong support from Los Angeles County officials, local and state elected officials, and over 50,000 community members.

The Biden administration held a public meeting in November 2023 where USDA undersecretary Homer Wilkes heard from hundreds of community members who voiced their support for the monument expansion.

Providing environmental justice for diverse communities

As part of the America the Beautiful initiative, the Biden Administration has set a goal to provide equitable access to nature and its benefits for communities across the country, particularly those that may currently lack safe, accessible outdoor spaces. Expanding the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument is an excellent opportunity for President Biden to demonstrate his administration’s commitment to that goal.

The proposed expansion area includes some of the public lands closest to urban residents in Los Angeles County, providing access to recreation, clean air, and solitude for a diverse population.

“Historically underserved communities were part of this effort early on,” said Belén Bernal, Executive Director of Nature for All. “We have a very unique situation here in L.A. where we have hundreds of thousands of acres next to 18 to 19 million people. It’s a national monument that I would dare say is the only one that has almost 20 million people immediately adjacent to it.”

The Los Angeles skyline set against the San Gabriel Mountains in the background. Pacific Southwest Forest Service, Flickr

Bernal grew up in Los Angeles County and has seen first-hand the ways in which nearby public lands can provide benefits for community members. With her team at Nature for All, she leads groups on hikes and workshops in and around the proposed expansion area, including camping 101 lessons to teach community members the basics of preparing for safe and positive outdoor experiences.

“Our urban communities don’t have access to parks in many cases,” she explained. “Expanding the national monument is about access for frontline community members and those who experience the burdens of environmental injustices.”

In addition to encouraging President Biden to expand the national monument through its San Gabriel Mountains Forever program, Nature for All takes community members into the San Gabriel Mountains through its All Aboard for Nature trips, which meet groups in their local communities and travel to the mountains together for a fun day in nature. Nature for All also works with several local organizations to plan for future transportation programs that can take community members to and from the San Gabriel Mountains, and the coalition advocates for improving public transportation to green spaces.

Protecting the additional 109,000 acres of the San Gabriel Mountains would not only address environmental justice by more equitably providing opportunities for recreation and solitude, it would also safeguard clean water for over three million people. Angeles National Forest provides one-third of Los Angeles County’s drinking water, so permanently protecting the valuable resource would ensure that pollutants from potential urban development do not make their way into the waterways that millions of nearby residents rely on. Wildlife also depends on clean water in Angeles National Forest, including black bears, mountain lions, coyotes, bighorn sheep, mule deer, and the arroyo toad, a species that has been endangered since 1994.

A black bear in San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. Rennett Stowe, Flickr

Preserving cultural heritage

According to Rudy Ortega, president of the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, which represents 26 Tribal Villages in the Los Angeles area, expanding the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument would protect sacred sites that are currently vulnerable to destruction from development and visitation without cultural awareness. President Ortega was raised in the area, and from a young age, he learned about the cultural significance of the landscape through family visits.

“As I got older, I realized the areas that my father was taking us to were significant cultural sites,” said President Ortega. “It was just passed down generation to generation.”

In November 2023, President Ortega, along with representatives from the Desert Cahuilla Indians and the Pit River Nation, urged President Biden to protect cultural and environmental resources by expanding the national monument using the Antiquities Act. Importantly, the Tribal leaders also requested that Tribes be welcomed into discussions around management of the landscapes.

“We find it’s important for our voices to be at the table of conversation,” said President Ortega. He added that it’s imperative for the federal government to work with Tribes in order to ensure that visitors understand the locations and significance of cultural sites on the landscape. “These are like our churches and temples. We want people to be respectful to these areas that are highly sensitive.”

To Ortega, the best way to honor Tribal sovereignty and preserve these sacred sites is by protecting them as part of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument.

“With the national monument, we know that it can further protect these sites. The monument will preserve it as closely as possible to the way nature has since time immemorial.”

— Rudy Ortega, President of the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians.

Mt. Baldy from Inspiration Point of the Angeles National Forest in the San Gabriel Mountains. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Flickr

An opportunity for Biden to make progress toward 30×30

In his first year in office, President Biden committed to conserving 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030, known as the 30×30 initiative. With just a year left in his first term, expanding the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument by using executive authority under the Antiquities Act would help Biden to make significant progress toward that goal.

“There’s alignment between local elected officials and statewide officials,” Bernal said. “You have the 30×30 campaign happening with America the Beautiful, and you have it happening locally here in California.”

Inspiration Point Vista, San Gabriel Mountains. Michael Kwok, Flickr

For more information, visit westernpriorities.org or RoadTo30.org. Sign up for Look West to get daily public lands and energy news sent to your inbox, or subscribe to our podcast, The Landscape.

(Feature image: View of the San Gabriel Mountains from Huntington Beach. Jonathan Cook-Fisher, Flickr)