The Lost Plan to Create a National Park in L.A.’s Backyard

This post appears as part of the USC Libraries' Discover at a Distance initiative, which highlights ways the libraries support the USC community with resources for remote teaching and learning.

Stephen Mather admired the view from the pine-scented summit of Mount Wilson on the evening of November 29, 1916. In the sky above, a billion stars twinkled. On the coastal plain below, Los Angeles was an apron of artificial light. It was a beautiful sight, he admitted. But Mather wasn’t convinced that he was standing inside America’s next national park.

That’s not what his hosts wanted to hear. Mather—a borax mining baron who quit his job to advocate for parks full time—would soon take the helm of the newly formed National Park Service, and the conservationists who invited him to the mountaintop were hoping to earn his support for a new park in Los Angeles’ backyard.

Authored by Rep. Charles Randall of Los Angeles, H.R. 16239—“A Bill to establish the Sierra Madre National Park in the State of California”—would elevate 467 square miles of the Angeles National Forest to national park status. Randall, the first and only Prohibition Party candidate ever elected to Congress, was fond of bold proposals. (At the time, he was also pushing a joint resolution to purchase Baja California from Mexico.) But H.R. 16239, which enjoyed broad support in Southern California's foothill communities, was far from outlandish. At the time, fifteen other park proposals were pending before Congress, from Washington’s Olympic Peninsula to Maine’s Mount Katahdin. Northern California’s Mount Lassen had earned national park status that past August, and Mather himself had championed the creation of a park in the Colorado Rockies the previous year.

Sierra Madre National Park, which borrowed an earlier name for the San Gabriel range, hoped to join the pantheon. Stretching from Tujunga to Cajon Canyon, it would encompass alpine peaks, pine forests, and singing brooks. And the landscape was more than suitable for recreation: With Randall’s bill pending, the Interior Department studied the proposed park and identified fifteen potential hotel sites, along with a network of automobile roads that would thread their way through canyons and along ridges.

As promising as that sounded, Sierra Madre, like many of the proposed parks, lacked the kind of "nationally significant" monumental scenery—glacial cliffs, mammoth trees, red rock formations—that defined the national park idea for Interior Department officials like Mather. Moreover, the land was already managed by a rival federal bureaucracy, the Agriculture Department’s National Forest Service, which could be expected to jealously guard its turf. Foresters soon made their opposition clear in an American Forestry editorial, denouncing the Sierra Madre proposal as “more or less mediocre” and suggesting it would cheapen the concept of a national park.

Even Mather understood that the forest service, which already expended twenty five thousand dollars a year on the land, might be better stewards of this particular tract. The Interior Department's chronically underfunded national park system would struggle to match that.

After taking in the view from Mount Wilson, Mather—politely—threw cold water on the idea. “I never looked upon a more beautiful sight,” he told his hosts. “It is certainly a convincing argument for any plan in which the preservation of natural scenery or beautiful outlook is concerned. It is a sight that you Southern Californians should advertise. However, I believe that nothing would be gained, and some things would be lost, by parking part of the Angeles National Reserve.”

Randall’s bill died without a vote. But the idea of Sierra Madre National Park through over the decades, like a shout in a chaparral canyon. The rugged San Gabriels might never become a national park. But nearly a century after Randall's proposal, on October 10, 2014, President Barack Obama signed a proclamation designating 541 square miles of the range as a national monument.

Discover more, at a distance: