The designation on Thursday by President Obama of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument took me completely by surprise. I had no idea that a change of status for part of what is now a National Forest was even being considered. According to the LA Time article the designation will help increase funding for preserving and enhancing the area. An organization called San Gabriel Mountains Forever has been advocating for more protection and development of recreational facilities in the area for a decade. My search indicated that San Gabriel Mountains Forever has been asking for the National Monument designation since August 2014.
Why did the President do it now? Declaring a National Monument is one of the things that Presidents can do without Congressional approval. There is always a strong desire by people who lead to Do Something. It also justifies a trip to Los Angeles and makes a local Congress-person happy.
The authority to declare National Monuments was given in the antiquities act of 1906 and has been used by many president since to create additional protections for federal land. I had earlier told people that the act was only used to protect small areas until President Clinton declared a large portion of Federal Land in Southern Utah to be the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. I was wrong. President Carter used the act to make a very large National Monument in Alaska, President Roosevelt used it to greatly expand Grand Teton National Park and there are many others. In all of these cases the President acted because Congress was listening to local interests and not acting. They were almost always very controversial acts.
In my opinion creating a National Monument in the Angeles National Forest is a really bad idea. I have list of reasons for my opposition most of which stem from my practical experience and my libertarian bent. I really don’t have a dog in this fight. Where I do most of my hiking is not included in the designated area. So why am I opposed?
At a time when the Federal Government is having a difficult time managing its current portfolio (the VA and Secret Service for example) why increase its responsibility.
When the Congress and the President have budget fights the first thing that they shut down is public land. This designation increases the power of the spenders.
The Park Service and the Forest Service are always short of funds. Why do we think that increasing their responsibility will increase their funding.
The attraction of the San Gabriel Mountains is not that they are beautiful. They are not. Their attraction is that they are a near wilderness close to a large population area. By increasing the footprint of the government on the area their attractiveness will inexorably be lowered.
A designation of a large area as a National Monument has almost always lead to its becoming a National Park. This restricts its use to low impact recreation. Is this what we want for the long run?
There are at least two alternatives to creating a National Monument and its increase in local dependency on federal largess. One is the Swiss model of private ownership of mountain land with very strict zoning and local control. The trails in the Swiss Alps rival those in Yosemite and Colorado and there are inns and chalets every few miles. See a discussion of this here. The other alternative is to turn the vast majority of Federal land over to the states. That is what happened in the Northeast and it seems to be working very well. Local control often gives better balanced results than national control.
One final thought: Why is it that Disneyland charges $100 a day and is always crowded while hiking in the mountains is free and the trails are nearly empty?