Ask Pasadena’s Edgar McGregor what he knows about trash. When you do, it’s clear he also knows a thing or two about human behavior.
McGregor’s been voluntarily picking up litter in the local canyons for 1,574 days now, rain or shine. That’s nearly four and a half years of filling his garbage buckets with disintegrating plastic, discarded dog poop bags and human waste-filled diapers.
A year ago, McGregor was recognized as a “local hero” by LAist Radio’s Larry Mantle. He is clearly that, but when Mantle asked why hikers and other forest visitors litter, McGregor cautioned his host about that not being the correct way to think about the problem.
McGregor told Mantle the solution was to think of trash collection like a game of scavenger hunt and to not focus on the why.
McGregor said this was because the motivation of the public to mistreat the natural world they are enjoying wasn’t the point.
Simply removing the trash needs to be an ongoing priority for our mental health and the health of the environment, or the downstream impact of not doing so will continue indefinitely, he said.
But this story isn’t about Edgar or the other community volunteers cleaning up after others. It’s about how federal policy decisions have turned our newest Monument into a national laughingstock, and what can be done about it.
A week ago, the influential Fodor’s Travel guide published its “Fodor’s No List 2024,” an advisory to travelers developed to actively discourage tourism in locations where overtourism, trash production and water quality “not only harm the destinations themselves, but the local communities who rely on them.”
The San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, founded under the Antiquities Act by Barack Obama, is the only United States travel destination in the “Trash Production” section of Fodor’s list of shame. The other incredibly trashy locations in the category were Ha Long Bay in Vietnam and The Atacama Desert in Chile.
Why put our local mountains on the list? Fodor’s key takeaway: “The number of visitors combined with lack of oversight and environmental awareness has led to the deterioration of what should be a natural oasis for Los Angeles County.”
The problem is that natural oasis is largely unmanaged by the US Forest Service (USFS), a chronically underfunded division of the federal Department of Agriculture. And funding personnel to pick up trash is not a priority for an agency embracing a policy since the 1960s of “multiple uses, sustained yield” over 650 million acres of land.
That’s why recent federal initiatives like Transit to Trails ring hollow when they involve the Forest Service. The agency is in the wilderness and conservation business, not the tourism business. So hiring forest rangers to fill local vacancies, proposed as a solution to the garbage collection problem by Representative Judy Chu, is remarkably tone deaf.
People are going to litter. Edgar McGregor knows that. The solution is not more law enforcement, it’s structural change.
To get off Fodor’s No List once and for all, the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument should be ceded to the US National Park Service (NPS), which manages the National Parks and most of the other National Monuments. This agency of the Department of the Interior is considerably more oriented toward handling tourism than the USFS.
Far from perfect, at least the NPS has a long history of environmental stewardship and management of facilities. Both of which are in short supply in the Angeles National Forest today.
As discussions progress in Washington D.C. about expanding the Monument further, one thing is clear: The local mountains need a new landlord who will hire people to pick up the damn trash.