In June, a group of politicians and a gaggle of news media visited Eaton Canyon Natural Area when it was closed.
It was a lovely day in the canyon.
Pasadena’s damp “South Seattle” spring gloom had finally subsided, the sun was out and the tall Hesperoyucca whipplei were in full display. A light breeze occasionally teased with the speaker’s notes carefully placed on the plastic podium, but no errant documents found themselves airlifted into Eaton Wash.
This was a photo opp to convince the President of the United States to increase the scope of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. In attendance were U.S. Senator Alex Padilla, Congresspersons Judy Chu and Tony Cárdenas, Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger and Pasadena Mayor Victor Gordo. Expanding the National Monument created by President Barack Obama was presented by the speakers as a way to preserve the natural character of the local mountains.
There are no significant issues with adding more acres to the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. If approved, the designation under the Antiquities Act would likely slow habitat destruction on public land administered by the U.S. Forest Service. That’s a laudable goal.
However, the $1.75M Transit to Trails initiative promoted by Congressperson Chu and others at the press event showcases how a well-intentioned program can completely overlook the inevitable result. And the Angeles National Forest portion of Eaton Canyon is, unfortunately, an excellent example of inevitability.
During the previous day, a popular Twitter account described Eaton Canyon as “the Disneyland of hiking trails.” To underscore the point, the account posted fresh photos of dozens of inexperienced day hikers attempting to navigate one of the natural area’s multiple water crossings.
Let’s just say the crowding wasn’t a pretty sight.
After seeing photos of the visitor mob, one online commenter exclaimed “Good heavens!” Another asked, “Where is that, so I can avoid it.”
The Transit to Trails Act is exactly what it sounds like and less. It’s federal capital funding to connect mass transit projects like the Metro A (formerly L) light rail line to shuttles delivering under-served urban and rural visitors to trailheads within green spaces like the Angeles National Forest.
What the initiative doesn’t include is funding to deal with the inevitable results of inviting the public deeper into the forest, including habitat destruction, litter clean-up, restroom maintenance, rescues and fires. And it doesn’t include funding to operate the shuttles the program does fund. That cost must be picked up at the state, county or municipal level.
The California Coastal Commission reviewed Transit to Trails and granted the program an exemption under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in 2017. The Commission claimed Transit to Trails was exempt from a detailed environmental review “because it involves regular operation of the beaches and parks in Los Angeles County with no expansion of use.”
But the Commission’s definition of park use related to transit systems, roads and bus stops does not consider what happens after people step off the shuttles and into the chronically under-funded jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service.
Problem number one with Transit to Trails is a complete lack of visibility to, and budgetary concern for, new direct and indirect costs. For example, direct costs related to shuttle bus drivers are not included in the federal funding. Likewise, indirect costs for litter cleanup and increased forest ranger patrols are also somebody else’s budget problem.
These funding challenges can be significant, and during tough budgetary times can easily be classified as “nice to have” and not “need to have” costs. Frequently, nice to have costs are deferred or eliminated when money gets tight.
Then there’s problem number two. When Transit to Trails was piloted in Pasadena during 2018, it was a failure.
What happened? Well, very few people used the weekend shuttle service departing from the Memorial Park Metro station. Only an average of 32 individuals per weekend actually rode the shuttles all the way to the Sam Merrill Trailhead in Altadena.
Perhaps the reason for the failure is because the Sam Merrill Trail does not go where the Eaton Canyon Trail does…to the most visited natural waterfall in Los Angeles County. And, there were noise complaints related to the shuttle buses themselves. The latter issue became so politicized that Kathryn Barger intervened and the Sam Merrill Trailhead stop on Pasadena Transit Route 88 was eliminated.
The current plan is to take Transit to Trails much deeper into the forest, to trailheads feeding into Eaton Saddle, Red Box, the Switzer Falls Trail and directly to the Mount Wilson Observatory.
Many of these trailheads are just that, a sign at the beginning of an established trail through the forest. With some exceptions, hiking trails in the Angeles National Forest offer no food service, no water, few restrooms, spotty mobile phone service, no ranger stations and no nature centers. How unprepared folks will cope with mountain trail hiking elevation changes and self-sufficiency is an open question.
For some, being at one with Southern California’s natural environment may change their lives and have numerous positive benefits. For others, a lack of preparation will expose them to a radically different type of risk than they’ve experienced in an urban environment.
While the goals of Transit to Trails are intended to reduce urban isolationism, the program does nothing to address the coyote in the room. And that means shifting operating budget priorities to fund basic infrastructure and services at destinations where large numbers of people want to go in the forest.
Without a realistic destination infrastructure and operating budget, routing shuttles along the winding, two-lane Angeles Crest Highway would, like the Forest Service trail to the Eaton Canyon waterfall, create an inevitable mess.