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A Mountain Park In A Great City

By Nancy Dale, Dave Brown and Tim Thomas

The Santa Monica Mountains in the Los Angeles area are remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which is that they are the only mountain range in the country to bisect a great city. Ten miles across at its widest point, fifty miles long, from Point Mugu to Griffith Park, this range lies within an hour's drive of more than six million people. In its many canyons and ridges it preserves thousands of acres of wildness in the midst of the urban area. To protect the best of this magnificent natural area, Congress in 1978 authorized creation of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, under which a 70,000 acre park, to be managed by the National Park Service, was to have been acquired by the mid-1980's and added to the 33,000 acres of existing park land.

Unfortunately, acquisition of land for the National Recreation Area has been hamstrung by federal and state budget constraints. The park barely survived a de-authorization attempt in 1981. Meanwhile, growing development pressures and rising land values have frustrated the acquisition of many key parcels. Land use controls, which were supposed to protect park water-sheds and other privately owned areas from incompatible development, have been weakened or withdrawn, especially in Los Angeles County, which contains the great majority of existing and potential parkland.

To date less than a fourth of the proposed park has been purchased, and nearly 3/4 of the authorized $125 million  has been spent. Some key areas, such as the upper Las Virgenes Valley, have been lost to development and others are being priced beyond reach. There have also been some victories. Cheeseboro Canyon, with one  of the finest remaining valley oak savannas south of the Tehachapis, has been saved and major part of rugged Zuma and Trancas Canyons has been preserved. The State of California also has extensive holdings in the Santa Monica Mountains. Topanga State Park (10,000 acres) is almost entirely within the City of Los Angeles and is one of the largest urban parks in the country. Malibu Creek State Park (6400 acres) contains a rich variety of plant communities and some of the finest scenery in southern California. Here rolling grasslands and savannas interface with rugged buttes and deep gorges. There are well-developed oak forests and riparian woodlands and at least three rare plant species. Leo Carrillo State Beach (2100 acres) is one of the few parks in California that include both beaches and uplands, in this case Sequit Gorge and the meadows and woodlands of Nicholas Flat. Point Mugu State Park (15,000 acres) contains one of the most rugged coastlines in the state, rising to 3000-foot Boney Ridge. There are rich stands of coastal sage scrub, giant coreopsis, and savannas of unusually tall sycamores. Inland there are chaparral-covered mountains and oak woodlands. Point Mugu also contains the 6000-acre Boney Mountain State Wilderness and a grassland preserve. Malibu Creek State Park contains three state natural preserves totaling 2600 acres.

The State of California, through both State Parks and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, has tried to make up for the slow pace of federal spending. Since 1980 the state has purchased the Backbone Trail Corridor (2000 acres), connecting Malibu Creek and Topanga State Parks and protecting such prime areas as Topanga Meadows, and made progress in rounding out Malibu Creek State Park to its natural boundaries and acquiring Malibu Canyon. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has purchased such prime areas as Wilacre and Fryman Canyon (southern California black walnut forest and riparian woodlands in the hills above Studio City), Peter Strauss Ranch, with its prime live oak forest, the riparian forest of lower Solstice Canyon, Arroyo Sequit near Lee Carrillo State Beach, and, most recently, the magnificent Circle X Ranch, which includes the highest Peak in the Santa Monicas. Another Conservancy acquisition, Stunt Ranch in the upper Cold Creek basin, is owned by the University of California as a research natural area.

A private land trust, the Mountains Restoration Trust, has taken over operation of the Cold Creek Preserve, comprising 600 acres of former Nature Conservancy land in the upper Cold Creek Basin. Local parks in the Santa Monica Mountains include Griffith Park and Coldwater Canyon Park (Tree People) in the City of Los Angeles and Charmlee County Park in Malibu.

A few Santa Monica Mountains parks can be reached right off the busy boulevards of Los Angeles. These include Wilacre Park (Laurel Canyon and Fryman Road), Caballero Canyon (end of Reseda Blvd.), Serrania Park in Woodland Hills (Kelvin and Wells Drive), Topanga State Park (Palisades Drive to Vereda de la Montura), Temescal Canyon Park (Sunset and Temescal Canyon Road), Will Rogers State Historical Park (Sunset Blvd. west of Rustic Canyon), and the National Park Service's Doheny Ranch in Franklin Canyon north of Beverly Hills .

Geology and Climate
The Santa Monicas are geologically quite young, being composed of rocks of igneous and sedimentary origin formed under the sea some twenty million years ago. They have born deeply cut by water flow. The front ridge runs parallel to the coast from two to five miles inland. Topanga and Malibu Creeks have cut gorges hundreds of feet deep on their way to the sea. Many marine fossils show clearly in the eroded sedimentary rocks. Tilted sandstone beds of continental origin (Sespe Formation) are a feature of Saddle Peak and on the north slopes west of Malibu Canyon volcanic rocks have eroded into buttes. The range is ten miles wide at its broadest part and reaches an elevation of 3,111 feet at Sandstone Peak near the western end. The altitude of the major portion rises between 1000 and 2000 feet.

The mild, rainy winters and hot, dry summers constitute a typically Mediterranean climate. The slopes facing the ocean benefit from a cooling sea breeze and are never as hot as the interior, which can be uncomfortably hot in summer months. There is occasional frost (rarely below 25 degrees) away from the coast, and once every twenty years or so a light snow falls, disappearing almost before the photographer can get film in the camera. There is a distinct rainy season from November to April and a dry season from May to October, but the precipitation is limited to relatively few periods. There are only a few days in the year when outdoor activities cannot be enjoyed. Annual rainfall in the Santa Monicas averages from fifteen inches along the coast to twenty-two to twenty-seven inches along the inland ridges from Topanga to Boney Mountain. The mountains are at their best in late winter and early spring when the temperatures are cool and rains bring out lush stands of wildflowers.

There is a great variety of animal life from sociable toads and scurrying lizards to the rarely seen mountain lions still ranging the upper ridges. Hikers often see ground squirrels, rabbits, coyotes and mule deer, but the opossums (introduced), raccoons, skunks, foxes and bobcats known to inhabit the range are not so frequently spotted. The rattlesnake is much shyer than is commonly supposed. Most people never see one and rarely is anyone bitten.

Since this area is in the Pacific Flyway many transient birds may be sighted as well as soaring vultures, hawks, golden eagles, and peregrine falcons. The large water birds –pelicans, great blue herons, and ospreys – have been seen along the coast.

Plant Communities
The variety that marks Southern California's natural setting is nowhere more evident than here in the Santa Monicas. There are shady chasms, waterfalls plunging among fern-draped boulders, and chaparral-covered ridgetops affording panoramas of higher ranges to the north or the sunlit sea to the south.

At least nine different plant communities flourish in the Santa Monicas, beginning with the rich Kelp Beds offshore. Miles of beaches, more nearly pristine than might be expected considering the extent to which they are in constant use, exhibit Coastal Strand species such as Abronia umbellata (sand verbena) and Camissonia cheiranthifolia (beach primrose). The Salt Marshes at Malibu Lagoon (ten acres at the mouth of Malibu Creek) and many acres more at Pt. Mugu support typical plants such as pickleweed ( Salicornia virginica ), seepweed ( Suaeda californica ), and sea lavender ( Limonium californicum ).

An almost-unique association of plants has also evolved in our mountains. There are only four other areas in the world that produce a similar type of plant community. This is known as Chaparral , and is widespread on the slopes and ridges far enough inland to miss the damp ocean breezes. Here chamise ( Adenostoma fasciculatum ), California lilac ( Ceanothus spp.), scrub oak ( Quercus berberidifolia ), and toyon ( Heteromeles arbutifolia ) are adapted to winter rains, hot, dry summers, and frequent fires.

Coastal Sage Scrub
, a plant community that occupies drier habitats as well as disturbed sites within the chaparral, is quite common because of the topography. Coastal sagebrush ( Artemisia californica ), coyote brush ( Baccharis pilularis ), both widespread composites, three species of Eriogonum ( E. cinereum, E. elongatum , and E. fasciculatum ), and three true sages ( Salvia leucophylla, S. mellifera , and S. apiana ) characterize this association as it climbs up the slopes from the sea .

On the shallow margins of ponds and little lakes small Freshwater Marshes are found exhibiting sedges ( Carex spp.), tules ( Scirpus spp.), and cat-tails ( Typha spp.). Along the barks of the permanent streams Riparian Woodlands - some of the loveliest areas in the mountains - appear, with tall sycamores ( Platanus racemosa ), cottonwoods ( Populus fremontii ), big leaf maple ( Acer macrophyllum ), white alder ( Albus rhombifolia ) and bay trees ( Umbellularia californica ).

Well-developed Oak Woodlands are found in Topanga and Malibu Canyons and in the Hidden Valley area. The coast live oak ( Quercus agrifolia ) dominates the part of the community that has a rich understory of ferns and shrubs. In some spots the bracken fern grows to eleven feet tall, believed to be the largest in the United States. The valley oak ( Quercus lobata ), reaches its southernmost limit in our mountains - the open grassy areas called Oak Savanna by some experts.

There are Grasslands but they are not extensive. Where they exist they are composed largely of introduced annual grasses. Some native perennial bunch grasses, notably Nassella pulchra , have survived, however, particularly in the La Jolla Grassland in Point Mugu State Park.