A peak accomplishment

Milt McAuley's love of the Santa Monica Mountains may be returned with a peak named in his honor.

Milt McAuley’s fingerprints are all over the Santa Monica Mountains. Soon, his name could be on one of the range’s most visible peaks.

Acting on a motion by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to write the United States Board of Geographic Names in support of changing the name of Peak 2049 to “McAuley Peak.”

The motion is the latest boost to a campaign championed during the past several years by West Hills resident and avid hiker Coby King, who had long felt a special connection to McAuley. Before venturing onto a new trail, King would turn to McAuley’s landmark guidebook, Hiking Trails of the Santa Monica Mountains.

“Most hiking guides are really straightforward,” King said. “But his guidebook, you could hear his voice coming through in every hiking description. You could tell that the guy had a personality and that he loved the mountains.”

McAuley led group hikes into his 80s.

McAuley also authored and self-published other reference materials on the mountains, including a wildflower guide and a guide to the popular Backbone Trail, which transects the range from East to West and which he helped plot. McAuley’s books and advocacy for public acquisition of land in the Santa Monica Mountains drew scores of people to the area and generated a groundswell of support to protect the mountains from development.

Although King never met the conservationist, he said he did hike “just about every peak” in McAuley’s book. When the author died in 2008, King was moved to action.

“I felt like he deserved some kind of recognition for all that he had committed to the mountains,” King said. Out of all the hikes to peaks in his guidebook, “2049 was the only one that didn’t already have a name.”

The peak is situated right next to the Backbone Trail and is crested by a large sandstone rock visible for miles. King said the peak is an appropriate monument to a man whose work still looms over the mountains. Since applications to name geographic landmarks can’t be filed until five years after the person’s death, King, who serves as chairman of the Valley Industry & Commerce Association, used his government expertise to start building a case.

After securing the blessing of the McAuley family, he garnered support from elected officials and worked with environmental groups like the Sierra Club, which began calling the site McAuley Peak in their materials.

King is hopeful that the U.S. Board of Geographic Names will quickly approve the application so that the new designation will become official sometime next year. And that’s good news to the many friends and former associates of McAuley, who believe his contributions warrant the honor.

Jim Hasenauer met McAuley in the 1980s when he and some fellow mountain bikers were trying to convince local trail managers to allow them to use the trails. Some of the hikers were resistant, but McAuley—whom Hasenauer described as a gentle giant—was welcoming.

“He felt that people needed to experience the trails, sights, vistas, flora and fauna of the area and then we would appreciate it and die protecting it,” Hasenauer said, adding: “To go on a hike with him was like going to a graduate seminar in mountain ecology.”

Ruth Gerson, who worked with McAuley on the Santa Monica Mountains Trails Council and serves as the organization’s current president, said he was instrumental in naming trails and opening them up for public use. “He was a wealth of knowledge in the mountains,” Gerson said. “There was nobody that disliked him. And he could out-walk anybody—even in his late 70s.”

Bill McAuley, Milt’s son, said he’s never hiked the peak that could soon be named in his dad’s honor. But he certainly intends to hit the trail when, hopefully, McAuley Peak becomes a reality.

“I see the names in the Sierras and they’re all people who had something to do with the mountains,” Bill said. “He really did have a lot of influence.”

Hiker Coby King led the campaign to have Peak 2049 named after McAuley.

Posted 9/11/14

Sky rangers get their day in the sun

Ranger Robert Cromwell views a solar eclipse from the Santa Monica Mountains. Photo/NPS

Not many people immediately think of the Santa Monica Mountains as a hotspot for star sightings in L.A. But Ranger Robert Cromwell of the National Park Service has a contrarian view when it comes to glimpsing famous luminaries.

“Meteor showers, the Orion Nebula, Saturn, Jupiter, the Transit of Venus, which only happens once every 110 years—we’ve had some spectacular sightings up here,” says Cromwell, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area’s coordinator of night sky programs.

“It’s always eye-opening to people,” he says. “Here we are, right next to one of the world’s biggest cities and yet you can actually see the Milky Way.”

This, Cromwell says, is partly because preservation of the night sky has become a priority in the mountains, both by the National Park Service and by the county, which has regulated artificial light in rural areas with a Dark Sky Ordinance since 2012. Soon, a sweeping new environmental plan for the Santa Monica Mountains, awaiting final approval by the Board of Supervisors, will protect those starry night views for generations to come.

Cromwell and a small team of park volunteers and rangers have made it their business during the past three years to turn the public on to Los Angeles’ celestial treasures and to the importance of protecting night skies from light pollution.

Cromwell calls his team “The Night Sky Rangers.”  Since 2011, when they threw their first mountaintop stargazing party, astronomy events at the recreation area have become seasonal extravaganzas.  Last year’s Summer Star Festival drew a crowd of 800, and this year’s, scheduled for August 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the park’s Paramount Ranch, is expected to be just as popular, if not more.

More than a dozen telescopes will be trained to night sky attractions, the Santa Monica Mountains Ranger Band will play astronomy-themed rock music, and there will be children’s programs and lectures by local astronomy and physics professors.

The Milky Way galaxy from the Santa Monica Mountains. Photo/Stephen Lee Carr

The emphasis on night sky preservation stems from a National Park Service decision in the late 1990s to formally recognize the night sky as a natural resource. As development encroaches on wilderness across the nation, streetlights and billboards have systematically crowded out starlight. Two-thirds of Americans, by some estimates, are now unable to see the Milky Way from their backyards.

Natural nighttime darkness is important not only to the circadian rhythms of humans but also to many wildlife species, who rely on natural patterns of light and dark for navigation and protection from predators.

Some national parks are renowned for their lack of light pollution. Death Valley National Park, for instance, is home to an assortment of Full Moon Festivals and Mars Fests, and the International Dark Sky Association has designated it the world’s largest “dark sky” park.

Most of the Santa Monica Mountains recreation area, which straddles the Los Angeles-Ventura County line north and west of the city, is too close to L.A. and saturated by city lights to get that kind of a designation, says Cromwell.

“But there are some sites within the mountains that I think have potential,” he says.

The Dark Skies Ordinance, passed two years ago by the county, restricts rural lighting across a designated district that hopscotches from Rowland Hills through the Antelope Valley and the Santa Monica Mountains to the coast. County code enforcement officers say that since the ordinance’s passage, cases have dropped to a handful as rural property owners have become better educated on the issue.

Park officials also have played a role in raising consciousness. Among other things, they’ve weighed in on development proposals, working with the City of Agoura Hills, for instance, to prevent light from a parking lot from encroaching too badly on a nearby wildlife corridor.

The park also has dimmed its own light footprint, hoping to lead by example.

Park spokeswoman Kate Kuykendall says about 65 percent of the park’s lighting is now night-sky-friendly LED, and outdoor fixtures are being switched to point downward instead of toward the sky.

Cromwell, who has been a ranger in the Santa Monica Mountains for five years, says the night sky has fascinated him since his childhood in Moorpark. One of his most vivid memories is when he was about 11 or 12 and surfing Malibu at twilight. He laid back on his board.

“It was one of those clear nights that you don’t always get at the beach, and I remember looking up and seeing the stars and seeing them reflect on the water,” he says of that memorable summer evening. “I was just, like, wow.”

The astronomy festivals grew out of a 2010 Yosemite National Park workshop. The national parks were encouraging night sky programming, Cromwell says, and although astronomy so close to a city seemed a challenge, he and his fellow park workers decided to try.

He, volunteer campground host Tony Valois and Ken Low, another park ranger with expertise in the night sky, have developed relationships with local enthusiasts, who now provide help and equipment. At the upcoming festival, for example, the Ventura County Astronomical Society will provide some of the telescopes, Cal Lutheran University Professor Mike Shaw will offer a family friendly tutorial on stargazing and Hal Jandorf, an astronomy professor at Moorpark College, will lead a constellation tour.

“The experts really make it possible,” Cromwell says. “And when people look out and see the glow from a development or something, they become conscious of how important it is to preserve experiences like this. Because on clear nights, you can see other galaxies sometimes. It’s spectacular.”

This year’s Summer Star Festival is scheduled for August 2 from 7:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. at Paramount Ranch, 2903 Cornell Road, Agoura Hills. In the event of rain, the program will be cancelled. For more information, call 805-370-2301

Last summer's festival drew a crowd of 800. Red cellophane light filters are used to reduce glare. Photo/Mike Shaw

Posted 7/24/14

A high note for mountain protections

Ridgeline developments like this will be banned in the Santa Monica Mountains by the county's new rules.

In a vote that will resonate for generations, the California Coastal Commission this week cleared the way for the enactment of a wide-ranging plan to protect the Santa Monica Mountains from development that already has scarred portions of one of the region’s most important environmental and recreational resources.

The 12-member commission voted unanimously in favor of a land use plan adopted last month by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, despite strong opposition from real estate development interests. The Coastal Commission vote was mandated by state law and represents a milestone in the years-long effort to preserve the mountains along the coast as a rural escape for tens of thousands of visitors each year.

The plan will, among many other things, ban ridgeline development, save oaks and other native woodlands, outlaw poisons that can harm wildlife, protect water sources, restrict lighting to preserve the night sky and prevent the opening of new vineyards, which take a toll on the land and water.

“This is a stunning achievement, to get a unanimous vote on a plan that has been on-again, off-again for three decades,” said one of its strongest advocates, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, whose district includes the Santa Monica Mountains. “It’s a tribute to all the stakeholders—environmentalists, equestrians, homeowners, agricultural interests, among others—who came together to find common ground.”

During testimony before the Coastal Commission on Thursday, Yaroslavsky said he had spent two decades on the Board of Supervisors “fighting against ill-conceived developments that have desecrated” the mountains. He told the commission that it now had a “historic opportunity” to stem the damage, an opportunity the commissioners seized.

They left virtually untouched the county’s proposed plan, which was crafted by Yaroslavsky’s office and the Department of Regional Planning. The only substantive addition was a clause that expressly affirmed the right of residents to grow organic gardens through ecologically sound farming methods—a move considered necessary because of misinformation that had been spread about the plan in the days leading up to the commission’s vote.

Much of Thursday’s day-long hearing in Santa Barbara was consumed with people testifying in support of the county’s plan. But one woman used her time to blast the 11th-hour falsehoods aimed at derailing the plan by claiming, among other things, that food gardens would be banned.

“It’s just not fair to those of us who aren’t experts to be given emails that say you’re not going to be able to grow your own food,” said Janet Friesen of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I’m here to say that I don’t think it’s right when there are paid lobbyists who are misleading people.”

Leading the campaign against the county’s plan, called a Local Coastal Program, was Don Schmitz, a consultant and lobbyist who also owns a vineyard in the Santa Monica Mountains. Under the plan, existing vineyards can remain in business, although no new ones would be allowed to open—a restriction that Schmitz criticized during his testimony on Thursday.

He disputed the negative environmental impacts of vineyards, calling the businesses a “significant draw to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.”

“Not everybody is able or even wants to throw on a backpack and do 10 miles on the Backbone Trail,” Schmitz said of one of area’s tougher hikes.

Now that the Coastal Commission has endorsed the plan’s policy direction, it will take another vote in the months ahead on the details of its implementation. The matter will then move back to the Board of Supervisors for a final vote.

Under the plan, existing vineyards can stay, while new ones will be prohibited.

Mansion "driveways," such as this winding one off Malibu Canyon Road, will be closely reviewed.

The mountains will be protected for future generations from development that scars the environment.

Posted 4/11/14

A loss as big as all outdoors

Dave Brown devoted decades to preserving the Santa Monica Mountains. Photo/Hal Bergman via Flickr

Some people spend their lives trying to move mountains. Dave Brown was more ambitious: He devoted his life to ensuring that the mountains remain unchanged.

Brown, an historian, environmental activist and college professor who died Saturday at the age of 79 at his home in Calabasas, was remembered this week as a lifelong civic voice for the coastal trails, streams, hills and canyons in the wilderness area where he lived since 1966.

“His soul was devoted to the Central Santa Monica Mountains and the part of the Simi Hills that touches the Santa Monica Mountains,” said Paul Edelman, deputy director of natural resources and planning at the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, where Brown had served as a member of the advisory board since the mid-1980s.

“He was just this guardian and watchdog who would go to incredible lengths to make sure they were protected, and who cared about every major piece.”

Brown, who was born in Illinois and moved to California as a graduate student in the late 1950s, taught history and political science for more than 40 years at Los Angeles Valley College in Van Nuys, but was also known locally for his passionate efforts, starting in the 1970s and early 1980s, to halt development in the pristine mountains.

Dave Brown at Zev Yaroslavsky Las Virgenes Highlands Park last year.

Working determinedly within the local environmental movement, Brown contributed to the preservation of tens of thousands of acres. He was one of a number of local influencers who helped stop the development of King Gillette Ranch, which had been slated to become part of a Soka University expansion; now the ranch hosts the Visitor’s Center of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. His advocacy also helped save or create such important wilderness landmarks as Malibu Creek State Park, the Zev Yaroslavsky Las Virgenes Highlands Park and the Backbone Trail.

Over time, he became sought after as an informed and pragmatic voice on local land use issues, and he served on the city of Calabasas’ Planning Commission for several decades, winning national recognition for his civic contributions. He also devoted countless hours to the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, the Malibu Creek State Park Docents and other environmental organizations. (To catch a moment of a Brown-led tour of the park several years ago, click here.)

“He was an incredible, encyclopedic resource,” said Kim Lamorie, who knew him as a 35-year member of the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation, of which Lamorie is president.

“He knew all the properties, he knew all the trees, he knew every ridgeline. And he was a master mapper. He had more maps than anyone I’ve ever known.”

“He was a big man with a big hat and a big voice, and he spoke with a lot of authority,” said John Suwara, a friend and neighbor of nearly four decades. “Dave was a realist, but he fought tooth and nail, right up to the end.

“Even as recently as March, he was going to Planning Commission meetings and reviewing documents. That was maybe the biggest thing about him—he did it day after day, year after year, decade after decade. He wasn’t one of these people who are there one day and gone the next.”

In fact, Edelman said, because of Brown’s longevity and commitment, there are now spots in the Santa Monica Mountains in which every visible piece of the wilderness, all the way to the horizon, is arguably there, at least in part, because of him.

“There’s one overlook on Piuma Road,” he said, “where everything you see is something he had an absolute hand in, from the valley bottom to the ridge lines.”

And then there is the matter of how the mountains shaped Brown’s life and outlook.

Last year, after the majestic, 200-acre Firehouse Hill—now the Zev Yaroslavsky Las Virgenes Highlands Park—was saved from development in Calabasas, Brown, by then in frail health, stood among its oaks and considered what the place meant to him.

“I sometimes sort of tell myself that if the Lord should see fit to send me upstairs instead of downstairs,” he said, “I would expect that I would walk up to heaven through a place like this.”

Posted 10/17/13

A mountainous achievement

After this acquisition, most of the land around Ladyface will be under public ownership. Photo/Agoura Hills Patch

Lovers of the Santa Monica Mountains soon will have 612 acres of new reasons to cherish the wilderness expanse at the edge of one of the world’s largest cities.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors this week approved two major acquisitions by the Mountains Recreation & Conservation Authority totaling 612 acres, including a vast expanse of land on the south face of the distinctive peak known as Ladyface Mountain.

“In terms of interior, non-coastal acquisitions, there hasn’t been anything this big in a long, long time,” said Paul Edelman, chief of natural resources and planning for the organization.

Preserving the Ladyface Mountain property—more than 525 acres in unincorporated Cornell, near Agoura Hills—means that a huge bloc of wildlife habitat will remain unaltered by development or other human activity. “It will always be there,” Edelman said. “It’s something we can count on.” The iconic views of the property, with its dramatic rock outcroppings, will continue to dominate the vista seen by those who travel along Kanan Dume Road.

Beyond the unspoiled beauty of the landscape itself, he said, placing the property under public ownership opens up vast new possibilities for how visitors will be able to use it.

“It creates a trail opportunity that few people have ever even dreamed of,” he said. For the first time, he said, the Pentachaeta Trail in Westlake Village will be able to connect across Triunfo Canyon and into the heart of the mountains.

The other property, in Escondido Canyon near Malibu, is much smaller—just over 86 acres. But its environmental, aesthetic and recreational significance is immense, Edelman said.

A central feature is a deeply shaded creek that flows year-round. Someone—no one’s sure exactly who—long ago created “a little bit of a Shangri-La” on the property, with a pond, terraces and picnic areas, Edelman said.

Both properties have drawn their share of headlines over the years.

Long-running development battles raged over an on-again, off-again plan to turn the Escondido Canyon property into a New Age retreat, featuring 95 of the Mongolian tents known as yurts, along with swimming pools, tennis courts, fitness facilities and meeting rooms. Now the property—made up of 34 separate parcels—will remain undeveloped.

Ladyface Mountain also has attracted plenty of attention, including a cheeky 2010 April Fool’s Day prank by the local newspaper, the Acorn, which claimed that a massive sculpture and aerial tramway—or “even a small bullet train”—were in the works for the site.

All joking aside, the Acorn also spent some time exploring the derivation of the peak’s unusual name—said to be a poetic reference to a Native American legend of the mountain’s distinctive outline—and concluded that it “had more to do with modern day marketing than Chumash Indian lore.

“The legend that tells of a lady peering into the skies waiting for the return of her warrior lover was fabricated by Art Whizin, a real estate developer and businessman who moved to the area in 1954 and wanted to build a restaurant on the crest of the mountain,” the newspaper reported.

When this latest acquisition by the Mountains Recreation & Conservation Authority is completed, the vast majority of land around the mountain will be in public hands and immune to any such development proposals in the future.

The purchase of both properties, at a total cost of $8.3 million, is being funded by 3rd District funds generated by, among other sources, Proposition A, the parks measure approved by county voters in 1992 and 1996.

Posted 3/20/13

The mountains’ queen of the hill

Kim Lamorie and Wolfie in the landscape she's loved, and worked to protect, for decades.

Thirty years ago, Kim Lamorie took her first hike in the Santa Monica Mountains. As the 54-year-old activist recalls it, it was love at first sight.

“The sweeping open space, the majestic ridgelines—it made me breathless,” remembers Lamorie, who in those days was a twentysomething working in production on the Canadian “SCTV” comedy TV series.

“I came from a part of Canada that was flat, and here were these spectacular mountains in this heavily populated urban area. I thought it was the most incredible thing I’d ever seen in my life.”

The producing gigs came and went, but the allure of the mountains never faded. Today, Lamorie—named “Woman of the Year” this week for the 3rd District—is the president of the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation, Inc., one of the mountains’ most powerful, active and far-reaching advocacy groups.

“Where I live, you can see the sun rise and the sun set over the mountains,” she says. “I see coyotes, deer, mountain lions, owls, hawks, roadrunners. When you live here, you’re just so motivated to preserve it, because you know that once this treasured habitat is gone, it’s gone for good.”

In many ways, she says, environmental activism comes naturally to her. Born in Toronto, she grew up on the shore of Lake Erie in Crystal Beach, a Canadian resort community.

“Unlike in California, which has the Coastal Commission, all of the beachfront was privately owned,” says Lamorie. “From the earliest age I can remember, my family was battling the private property interests to get public beach access. My uncle still has an organization called Shorewalk in Crystal Beach.”

Environmental concerns, however, weren’t such a priority during Lamorie’s twenties, when her job at the Second City theater troupe’s TV sketch comedy series, “SCTV,” brought her to California. (“We set up offices at one point to write in Studio City and then went back to Toronto to shoot the episodes,” says Lamorie.)

Lamorie worked on the show’s syndication package in 1984 after “SCTV” stopped shooting, and ended her stint as an associate producer of a follow-up special. But eventually, like the show’s famed cast, from Martin Short to John Candy, Lamorie moved on.

And when her daughter, Krista, was born 17 years ago, Lamorie scaled back her involvement in show business.

For more than 20 years, Lamorie and her family have lived in a 3-bedroom house in the Santa Monica Mountains, on a hilltop near Calabasas that, like the mountains, she loved on sight. It was that affection, she says, that launched her activism.

“There was a development project that the local Calabasas Highlands Homeowners’ Association was fighting,” she remembers. “They were bulldozing over magnificent oak woodlands and scrub oak habitat, and you become protective of the place you live in, so I started to get active. And as soon as I met the activists in the Federation, I thought. ‘Oh. My. God. They’re just like me.”

Over the years, Lamorie has assumed ever greater leadership roles, first as a delegate, then as vice-president and then as president of the Federation, which advocates for policy on behalf of mountain communities spanning the Las Virgenes Valley.

Fellow activists say her fact-based approach and infectious energy have not only boosted involvement, but focused disparate constituencies on critical missions, from protecting oak woodlands and water quality to curbing development on pristine ridgelines. Last year, the Federation sent busloads of residents to testify against a redistricting plan that threatened to put the mountains into the same district as the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

“That job is like herding cats, but herding cats with a purpose,” says Steve Hess, an engineer and small business owner from the unincorporated community of Cornell who spent four years, from 2003 through 2006, at the helm of the Federation. “Kim has taken the Federation to the next level and given it a louder voice.”

“She not only knows all the facts on an issue, but she knows how to get things accomplished,” agrees Nancy Rothenberg, a neighbor of Lamorie and former president of the Calabasas Highlands HOA.

“She’s very savvy. And she has an encyclopedic mind for all the minutiae you need to know to effect any change.”

In a speech this week accepting the Woman of the Year honor, Lamorie credited her progressive Swedish mother and her fellow activists, “the real stewards and warriors who are not motivated by money, power or greed, but who are driven to preserve something so undeniably valuable.”

Next on her agenda? Protecting the California Environmental Quality Act from what she skeptically refers to as “quote-unquote ‘modernization’.”

And her opponents shouldn’t underestimate her, says Mary Ellen Strote, vice president of the Federation.

“Like any good leader, she picks her battles,” Strote says. “But no matter how powerful or well-funded her opponent, when the stakes are the Santa Monica Mountains, she never backs down.”

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Kim Lamorie at awards ceremony this week.

Posted 3/14/13

The mountains’ new king of the hill

David Szymanski shares some shade with park guide Bethany McCormick.

In 1976, David Szymanski’s grandparents took him on a Bicentennial road trip across the United States.

“I was eight,” he remembers. “We stopped at the Badlands and Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone, Hoover Dam, maybe the Grand Canyon. The landscapes of the Great Plains and the West were so different in so many ways from what I was used to. I remember coyotes yipping in Montana and Wyoming. It was spectacular. I was amazed that such places existed.”

That amazement stayed with him—as a teenager in the Rust Belt, as a University of Michigan engineering student and, in his senior year of college, in a random-but-career-altering class on the literature of the American wilderness that “dredged up everything I’d felt at eight.”  

Now Szymanski, a 44-year-old veteran of the National Park Service, is managing of one of Southern California’s own spectacular places as the new superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

Szymanski was named after a 10-month search for a successor to the popular Woody Smeck, who was the public face of the nation’s largest urban national park for more than a decade before moving on to a job as a deputy superintendent at Yosemite National Park.

It’s a tough act to follow, acknowledges Szymanski, who was half-joking but completely awestruck when he referred to Smeck as “St. Woody” during a recent meet-and-greet with public officials. The 153,750-acre recreation area is a complex jurisdictional patchwork with players at every level of government as well as powerful community and nonprofit interests; as superintendent, Smeck worked on everything from preservation guidelines for sensitive wildlife habitat to firefighting policy to funding for thousands of acres of open space acquisitions.

“He’s a great, great, great, great person,” Symanski says.

A couple of mule deer size up the new guy.

Szymanski, however, brings his own set of credentials, including long experience in areas with complex issues requiring cooperative management. He has spent nearly two decades working with parks and protected areas, including 14 years in the National Park Service.

His most recent stint was as superintendent of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Park in the Pacific Northwest, but he also has served at Everglades National Park in Florida, Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, on the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks as a congressional fellow and, in the 1990s, in Madagascar, working in that country’s then-new national park system. 

“I’ve always enjoyed working in places where we’ve had to work with communities and partners to get things done,” he says. “At Lewis and Clark, we included several state parks in our boundaries, and in the Everglades, it was often sugar farmers against fishing guys, and finding solutions among people that often otherwise wouldn’t be in the same room. This is the best place in the country for those kinds of things.”

On the job for all of three weeks, Szymanski has already hit the ground hiking, reaching out to stakeholders and learning the landscape even as he settles in with his wife, Elaine, and their 6- and 8-year-old sons, and tries to squeeze in the occasional bike ride (he’s an avid cyclist.)

“I’ve hiked from Newbury Park up the Boney Mountain Trail. I’ve biked the Backbone Trail. I went to Solstice Canyon with the granddaughter of [grocery store magnate] Fred Roberts, who assembled so much of the canyon property and sold it into conservation. I met the neighbors at Zuma and Trancas Canyons, and went to a lot of smaller areas. Of course, I’ve spent time at the new Visitor Center at the King Gillette Ranch.”

On a recent afternoon, he strolled along the Inspiration Loop Trail near the Visitors’ Center, discussing ways to improve signage—a small-but-complex question, particularly for pet owners, since the 5-minute walk between the center and the unmarked trailhead traverses both National Park land (which allows dogs) and land overseen by the Mountains Restoration and Conservation Authority (where dogs are forbidden).

But the hike, led by NPS Park Guide Bethany McCormick, was also a lesson in the storied history of the property’s Hollywood origins and its stints as a retreat for various cults and religions. And midway through, it was interrupted by a family of five mule deer, who paused on the sun-dappled trail and then bounded away.

“The mountains in a way say so much about Los Angeles, about the people who came here to seek their fortune and then assembled this megalopolis,” says Szymanski. “But what’s also impressive to me is knowing that in 1978, most of the area was not protected. It’s really humbling in some ways because there are so many people here who are so active and with such a long list of accomplishment in this area. Our job, I think, is to continue that vision and to bring the resources we have at our disposal to that partnership.”

And, he adds, to hold onto our sense of amazement.

“My wife went out for a walk last week near where we’re staying, which is near Cheesboro and Palo Comado Canyons, and took a movie for our children, so they could hear the coyotes yipping in the background,” he marvels. “She was less than a half-mile from a residential area, and yet you had the sounds of the wild.”

The new superintendent surveys a small part of his new territory.

Posted 10/30/12

Haunting with a homespun touch

As dusk falls, Topanga gets in the spirit of Halloween at the BOO-tanicum.

In a world full of gory, glitzy theme park Halloween extravaganzas, a hand-crafted small town production would seem to have about as much chance of survival as an ingénue in the first reel of a slasher flick.

But for the second year, the resourceful Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon is staging a spirited fright-fest that’s more about old school creativity than slick effects.

At “Theatricum BOO-tanicum,” stage performers, business owners and residents of the famously artistic mountain community come together to conjure an eerie atmosphere without a ton of technology or expensive effects. Recycled theater sets and old netting are used to complement donated traditional decorations.

“We try to take a high-toned chill factor rather than a gore factor—a spookiness rather than severed heads,” says event organizer Matt van Winkle.

The setting helps. Craggy trees and old wooden structures form an ominous backdrop come nightfall, when the shadows stretch across the canyon.

The event may be the perfect destination for families, van Winkle said, noting that last year’s crowd included more children than expected. Peter Alsop will entertain with songs, and costumed theater company veterans will bring ghost stories to life. Kids and adults are encouraged to wear their costumes, with a contest scheduled to honor the best.

There are plenty of other attractions, like pumpkin carving, magicians, old school carnival games and an improv comedy performance by “Off The Grid,” a local troupe. In a nod to Los Angeles culture, chicken and waffles will be the featured menu item—all organic, of course.

Even with all the wholesome fun, the BOO-tanicum promises its fair share of shrieks, too. Van Winkle boasted that last year he got complaints from a few parents that the gore-free haunted house was “too scary.” There is also a haunted maze, and undead thespians will roam the grounds to keep visitors on their toes.

It all takes place Friday, October 26, from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. The event is the fall fundraiser for the Theatricum, a nonprofit theater and center for the arts. Admission is $20 for adults, $15 for teens and $5 for kids ages 5 to 12. Children 4 and under are free. See the website for directions and, if you decide to go, keep an eye out for Zombie Shakespeare.

A costume contest tempts kids to rock their best faux facial hair.

Posted 10/24/12

A milestone gift for L.A.’s trails

The Backbone Trail is one of 7 projects benefiting from an infusion of grant funds. Photo/National Park Service

The Backbone Trail is one celebrity-owned property and an easement short of completion. The Cold Creek High Trail is just three parcels shy of being in public hands. Just one 700-foot path and hikers and horseback riders on the Las Virgenes Creek Trail will no longer have to pull up short at the Ventura Freeway.

But those gaps and more may soon be bridged with the help of some $3.2 million in county grants.

Generated by the county’s 1996 Proposition A park bond, and approved by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, the grants promise to make a big difference for nature enthusiasts in the Santa Monica Mountains, where some of Southern California’s best-known and most beloved trails are tantalizingly close to full public ownership.

Although the mountains have long been regarded as a public treasure, their property lines are actually a public-private patchwork, and many trails, habitats and watersheds run through private backyards and no-trespassing areas. Environmental advocates have worked for decades to acquire key lots and easements, and to forge connections among the trails that crisscross the peaks and canyons.

This week’s grants, spread among seven projects and ranging from $59,438 to $500,000, come from a pot that is periodically disbursed to fund parkland and open spaces, but this round is expected to make an especially big impact.

One $500,000 grant, for example, would get the ball rolling on a 110-acre addition to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. The acreage, in Malibu’s Ramirez Canyon, “is a critical element . . . in filling a major gap in public ownership in the Santa Monica Mountains,” says Sam Hodder, who directs the Trust for Public Land in California. Among other things, Hodder says, the property includes a sensitive oak woodland habitat and a vulnerable stream that flows directly into Santa Monica Bay.

Another $500,000 grant, to the Mountains Restoration Trust, would complete the acquisition of the last three private parcels along the Cold Creek High Trail Project, adding 17.4 acres and 1.63 miles of trail between Stunt and Cold Canyon Roads. The extension will not only restore a longstanding neighborhood hiking and equestrian trail that was badly damaged in the fires and floods of the early 1990s, but—more importantly—will protect the Cold Creek watershed, a key habitat for mountain wildlife.

A third $500,000 chunk of change will go toward the Don Wallace Trail Project, a new path that will finally give hikers and equestrians safe passage down through the underpasses at the 101 Freeway and Agoura Road in Calabasas and on into Malibu Creek State Park.

And perhaps the most exciting grant, for $465,000, will allow the National Park Service to complete the Backbone Trail, one of the best known and most heavily used trails in Los Angeles County. For some 30 years, more than 35 organizations have been trying to obtain a public right-of-way across all of the 177 pieces of property that the trail crosses as it wends its way over the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains to the Pacific.

As of this year, only two parcels remained outstanding. A tentative agreement to convey an easement for one of them recently was reached with the National Park Service, according to Melanie Beck, who handles land deals for the NPS in the Santa Monica Mountains.

When the easement is finalized, it will leave just one incomplete spot on the 65-mile trail: a 40-acre swath of chaparral in Trancas Canyon owned by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Betty Weider, the 77-year-old wife of Schwarzenegger’s longtime friend and business partner, the fitness magazine publisher Joe Weider.

A spokesman for the governor confirmed this week that Schwarzenegger and Weider were approached years ago about the acreage but no agreement was reached. Schwarzenegger, the spokesman added, “remains open to meeting and talking about it again.” Weider could not immediately be reached.

The grants represent a big moment in the long-running effort to create a network of public pathways through the mountains.

“We need to celebrate the years of hard work that have gone into building the trail system,” Beck said. “With these accomplishments, we can help share and publicize this trail system with the many groups that wish to enjoy the Santa Monica Mountains long into the future.”

Posted 9/20/12