Santa Monica Mountains parkland celebrates 25 years

Superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, Robert Chandler. Photos courtesy of the SMMNRAFirst

The fine line between protecting land for the public and dealing with the rights of private property owners is a continuing balancing act for stewards of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

By P.G. O’Malley, Special to The Malibu Times

The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA) will be 25 years old this month, and the National Park Service is kicking off a year-long celebration this Saturday, premiering a film on the mountains by the Discovery Channel at the recreation area headquarters in Thousand Oaks.

Former Malibu resident Margo Feuer and current resident Sarah Dixon remember an up-and-down, multidecade effort to protect the mountains in Malibu’s backyard from subdivisions, sewers and a freeway. And although Jimmy Carter signed the legislation that created the recreation area on Nov. 10, 1978, the wisdom of a national park in Malibu’s backyard has not always been met with rave reviews.

Back when Feuer was commuting to Washington to lobby Congress for open space, a protection group called People for Land Justice (many members owned property slated for development in the mountains) organized in Malibu to oppose public protection, and today the Malibu-based Preservation Foundation keeps a sharp eye on how issues such as redevelopment plans for Malibu Creek State Park will affect area property owners. Foundation founder Anne Hoffman says her goal is to protect homeowners from laws and regulations that restrict the use of their property such as viewshed protection restrictions she says are being considered by park managers in Malibu Canyon.

The protectionist effort that ended with the creation of the 150,000-acre SMMNRA began in the late 1960s when homeowner groups from Bel Air to Malibu objected to plans released by Los Angeles County that called for a community of 400,000 residents spread out over the mountains. Local legislative representatives lobbied for a cohesive approach to development that protected open space and wildlife until the state Assembly passed AB 163 in the early 1970s, which called for an overall regional plan, an effort that eventually fell to the state-created Santa Monica Mountains Planning Commission. The state legislation helped induce the Board of Supervisors to back off on the scale of development the county originally planned, and Los Angeles County eventually ended up cooperating with Ventura County on the commission.

As the state efforts got underway, the Sierra Club named Feuer and Tarzana resident Jill Swift to the newly created Santa Monica Mountains Task Force and sent Feuer to Washington twice a year for eight years.

“We knew we couldn’t have a park without land, and we knew we couldn’t buy land without money from the federal government,” Feuer said.

Back home, county Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Dean Dana, whose districts included valuable mountain real estate, continued to object to the idea of a park, but by that time Congress was pushing a movement to safeguard parkland for inner city residents. A veteran of the environmental group, Stamp Out Smog, Feuer also argued in hearings held in Los Angeles in 1974 that the Santa Monica Mountains provided an airshed for L.A.

The SMMNRA was eventually created in a bill packaged by San Francisco Congressman Phil Burton and pressed forward by west Los Angeles Representative Anthony Beilenson, one of 225 parks created that year, and the Santa Monica Planning Commission went on to become the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, now headquartered in Ramirez Canyon in Malibu.

Dixon said she didn’t know much about development or the value of the Santa Monica Mountains when Gov. Jerry Brown named her to the Santa Monica Mountains Planning Commission.

“I think the governor appointed me because I seemed neutral,” Dixon said, “not developer-oriented, not a conservationist. I learned a lot about the importance of the mountains as a natural resource and for recreation.”

About half the land within the recreation area is publicly owned but the rest is private, which NPS Superintendent Woody Smeck says makes it unique among national parks. “We consider the people in the mountains our neighbors and we want to work cooperatively with them,” Smeck said.

But Malibu residents have not always considered recreation area managers as having acted in the city’s best interest. After the 1993 and 1996 wildfires burned over the mountain crest and destroyed or threatened homes and property along the coast, Malibu homeowners argued with recreation area managers that they didn’t do enough to clear parkland of fire-prone vegetation. The city has also been engaged in a decade-long squabble about returning property where the Bluff Park ball fields are located back to the state.

Smeck responds that the idea of parkland is to keep it as natural habitat and that SMMNRA is in compliance with county fire regulations. And former state parks regional superintendent Russ Guiney points to the restoration of the Malibu Pier as an example of cooperation between the city and the recreation area that has worked.

For more information on anniversary celebrations, visit