San Gabriel Mountains National Monument expands by more than 100,000 acres

Huntington Beach, CA - February 23: A person on a stand-up paddle board takes a scenic cruise as the setting sun illuminates the top of recently snow-capped San Gabriel mountains in Huntington Harbour in Huntington Beach Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
About 18 million people live within an hour's drive of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. The range's peaks were capped with snow — as seen here from Huntington Harbour in February — several times this winter. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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For the record:
11:05 a.m. May 2, 2024: This article previously said Molok Luyuk makes up about .2% of California’s acreage. It makes up about .02% of the state’s acreage.

President Biden on Thursday expanded San Gabriel Mountains National Monument by nearly a third in an action that was widely praised by the Indigenous leaders, politicians, conservationists and community organizers who had long fought for the enlargement of the protected natural area that serves as the backyard of the Los Angeles Basin.

The president also signed a proclamation expanding Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument by adding the 13,696-acre Molok Luyuk, or Condor Ridge, to the 330,000-acre swath of rolling oak woodlands, lush conifer forests and dramatic rock formations along Northern California’s inner Coast Range.

Biden’s actions put in place stronger federal protections for areas that were left out when each monument was initially set aside by then-President Obama, in 2014 in the case of the San Gabriel Mountains and the following year for Berryessa Snow Mountain. Advocates say the designations will expand underserved communities’ access to open space and better preserve sacred and historic Indigenous cultural sites. The move also came as Biden has sought to boost his conservation record heading into the presidential election.

“It’s a huge deal on so many levels,” said Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), who had introduced legislation that would have expanded both national monuments. That legislation remains active, but it lacks the Republican support in Congress to bring it to the finish line, he said.

As a result, Padilla and Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) last year urged Biden to bypass Congress and instead issue a presidential proclamation under the Antiquities Act of 1906, which the president did Thursday.

“I’m exceptionally proud to have worked in Congress with Sen. Padilla, other local, state, and federal elected officials, and many local advocacy groups for over a decade to highlight the significance of the San Gabriel Mountains to our environment, economy and health,” Chu said in a statement.

A person points at a waterfall in a rocky canyon
Millard Falls, at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains near Altadena, is part of the expanded national monument. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

The expansion of each monument was the culmination of years-long grassroots campaigns by conservation organizations, community groups and tribes, Padilla said.

“A lot of work went into the initial monument designations under President Obama, but the areas that are being added now were part of the initial vision, just not included in the initial designation,” he said. “So it’s finally completing the vision.”

The move adds nearly 106,000 acres to the 346,000-acre San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, which sits within an hour’s drive of 18 million people, extending its boundaries to the edge of San Fernando Valley neighborhoods including Sylmar and Lake View Terrace, as well as the city of Santa Clarita. Those are some of the hottest regions within L.A. County, and home to communities of color that have historically lacked access to nearby green spaces, said Belén Bernal, executive director of Nature for All, a coalition of environmental and community groups that has long campaigned for more parks and safe outdoor opportunities, including the expansion of the monument.

“As a Latina, I believe that we, people of color, given our income status and that a lot of our family members are immigrants to this country, we have been deprived of nearby nature in our neighborhoods,” Bernal said.

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Stretching from Santa Clarita to San Bernardino, the San Gabriel Mountains watershed provides Los Angeles County with 70% of its open space and roughly 30% of its water. Already, Angeles National Forest attracts nearly 4.6 million visits a year — more than the Grand Canyon or Yosemite National Park. The added protections will help ensure equitable access to the San Gabriels’ cool streams and rugged canyons while also preserving clean air and water, Bernal said.

Leaders of Indigenous groups — including the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians and the San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians Gabrieleno/Tongva — were part of the coalition that pushed for the expansion.

“Expanding the monument helps protect lands of cultural importance to my people, who are part of this nation’s history and who have cared for these lands since time immemorial,” said Rudy Ortega Jr., president of the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, in a statement heralding the announcement. “It also further protects areas that are critical for our environment and the wildlife and plants that depend on this landscape.”

The expansion will protect Bear Divide, a slot in a ridgeline overlooking Santa Clarita that is used by migrating birds as they make their way from Central America toward the Arctic. It will also preserve habitat for black bears, mountain lions, coyotes and mule deer, along with rare and endangered species, including Nelson’s bighorn sheep, mountain yellow-legged frogs and Santa Ana suckers.

Though the initial designation of San Gabriel Mountains National Monument was intended to foster a cleaner and safer wilderness, it came with no new government money to manage crowds or clean up trash. Park officials and volunteers have since been struggling to cope with the consequences of surging visitation, particularly in summertime, and complaints about blight have persisted.

To that end, Thursday’s announcement included a commitment from the federal government that it would step up funding and staffing for the monument, including hiring additional field rangers and visitor engagement positions, and investing $2.3 million from the Great American Outdoors Act to renovate barracks and provide other housing for National Forest staffers.

A coalition of philanthropies and businesses, with support from state agencies, also announced a $1-million commitment to the San Gabriel Mountains Community Collaborative, the nonprofit partner of the U.S. Forest Service that works to promote sustainable recreation within the monument.

The California State Water Resources Control Board said it would fund efforts to reduce trash and other pollutants along the East Fork of the San Gabriel River, a spot that’s popular for its idyllic swimming holes but has also garnered attention for graffiti and garbage in recent years. And the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy announced a $2.5-million investment to improve access along the East Fork by building more dedicated trails and installing amenities such as stairs, restrooms, trash bins, picnic tables and formal parking areas. Construction is expected to start this year.

Trees frame a lake under cloudy skies with brown vegetation along the shoreline
The Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, seen here at Lake Berryessa in Northern California, was first designated in 2015. (Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

Newly included in Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, Molok Luyuk is the sacred ancestral home of the Patwin people — who include the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, the Kletsel Dehe Wintun Nation and the Cachil Dehe Band of Wintun Indians — that also served as a trade and travel route for other Indigenous groups. As part of the agreement, the ridge will be officially renamed from Walker Ridge to Molok Luyuk, which means Condor Ridge in the Patwin language.

The expansion provides the Patwin tribes with the opportunity to co-steward Molok Luyuk with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which manages the monument, Anthony Roberts, tribal chairman of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, said in a statement.

“Notably, the renaming of Walker Ridge to Molok Luyuk recognizes the Patwin ancestry of this area of California, whose traditional territory stretches south from these hills to the shores of San Pablo Bay and east to the Sacramento River,” he said in written remarks. “It also highlights the restoration effort being made by our Tribes to reintroduce the California Condor to the ridge."

Molok Luyuk was initially left out of the 2015 monument designation because of multiple attempts to put a wind energy project on the ridge. The project was eventually shelved over a variety of issues, said Sandra Schubert, executive director of Tuleyome, a conservation nonprofit that has been trying to win protections for the land for more than 20 years.

As the spot where two tectonic plates meet, Molok Luyuk has unique soils, plants and geological features that make it a popular spot for scientists to study, Schubert said.

“Think of walking like 100 yards, and you’re literally walking through millions of years of history because of the geology,” she said. “That unique geology also leads to unique, rare species, especially of plants.”

Although Molok Luyuk makes up about 0.02% of California’s acreage, it supports a staggering 7% of the state’s native plant diversity, including rare plants like the adobe lily and Purdy's fritillary, as well as the world’s largest known stand of MacNab cypress, said Jun Bando, executive director of the California Native Plant Society, which was also key in pushing for the expansion.

The designation also paves the way for the land to be included in the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument plan, which helps ensure it is adequately protected, she said.

“Molok Luyuk is an area that is sacred to the local tribes and it’s also really unique in terms of the degree of biodiversity that it supports,” Bando said.

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Vice President Kamala Harris said in a statement that she fought for public land protections as a U.S. senator from California and thanked Biden and local advocates for making the expansions a reality.

“These expansions will increase access to nature, boost our outdoor economy and honor areas of significance to tribal nations and Indigenous peoples as we continue to safeguard our public lands for all Americans and for generations to come,” she said.

Big picture, the national monument designations are key to the goal — put forward by a team of international scientists and adopted by California — of protecting 30% of lands and coastal waters by 2030, Bando said.

“This goal isn’t a ‘nice to have,’” she said. “It’s part of urgent international action to address the intertwined crises of climate change and extinction.”

Advocates are also petitioning Biden to set aside other California lands as national monuments. In the eastern Coachella Valley, conservationists and Indigenous groups including the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians want the president to designate 627,855 acres of desert as Chuckwalla National Monument, and to expand neighboring Joshua Tree National Park by 17,915 acres.

In Imperial County, the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe is pushing for the protection of more than 390,000 acres of their homelands with the creation of the Kw’tsán National Monument. And the Pit River Tribe has called on Biden to invoke the Antiquities Act to designate as a national monument about 200,000 acres of their ancestral homelands and spiritual sites in Sáttítla, or the Medicine Lake Highlands, that sit within the volcanic formations of Northern California.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.