Brief History of the San Gorgonio Wilderness and
the San Gorgonio Wilderness Association
Southern California is known far and wide as the home of
Hollywood, Disneyland, and surfers. What is not as well known is that there is a rare
treasure only 75 miles east of Los Angeles where you can escape from the freeways and
congestion of the big city: The San Gorgonio Wilderness.
The San Gorgonio Wilderness is the climax region of the San
Bernardino Mountains in Southern California. Located on the San
Bernardino National Forest, the Wilderness receives approximately 200,000 visitors
each summer. Its 58,969 acres harbor two small lakes, meadows, streams, 100+ miles of trail, densely forested northern slopes, and rugged terrain.
Elevations in the Wilderness range from 4,400 feet to 11,499 atop namesake Mt. San Gorgonio. All eleven U.S. Geological Survey recognized peaks
are over 10,000 feet in height, with Mt. San Gorgonio being the highest. As the highest
peak between the
mountain range and the Mexican border, Mt. San Gorgonio offers unparalleled views of
metropolitan Los Angeles and the Mojave Desert.
For most of history, San Gorgonio rose above the
encroachment of civilization. In 1852, Colonel Henry Washington of the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers was assigned the task of establishing an initial point from which an east-west
base line and a north-south meridian could be surveyed. This point would provide land
surveys for all of Southern California. His choice? The 10,624 foot San Bernardino Peak
looming high over the San Bernardino Valley and visible from Los Angeles. From this point,
5 ½ miles distant he spotted the bald mass of San Gorgonio Mountain -- the first official
notice of the peak. The first documented ascent of San Gorgonio was in 1872 by Watson A.
Goodyear of the California Geological Survey and Mark Thomas of San Bernardino. Ascents of
San Gorgonio became quite common by the mid-1870's. By the 1890s, resorts were beginning
to move in on its isolation. By 1894, guided groups were being led up both San Gorgonio
and its neighbor to the west, San Bernardino Peak. New trails and wagon roads soon
Protecting the Wilderness
By the mid-1920s, drastic changes had occurred.
Approximately 75,000 to 100,000 people ascended upon the San Bernardino Mountains yearly.
It seemed the area would soon be run down without protection. However, in 1923, the
Western Rangers' (a boys outdoor club) Harry James led a group of 185 boys to the summit.
One of the boys spoke of his fear that the beautiful high country would soon be spoiled by
imminent development. That thought inspired James and a delegation of Western Rangers to
propose to Angeles
National Forest Supervisor Rushton S. Charlton that the area be preserved as a
wilderness. However, the Forest Supervisor had already begun developing plans for
widespread development in the high country for maximum public use. But, in January 1929, a
new national forest recreation plan was announced to the public -- one that provided for
protection of the San Gorgonio high country as the San Gorgonio Recreation Area. This plan
set aside 11,800 acres where no roads would be allowed and only sufficient trails to make
the area accessible for hiking parties. On April 23, 1931, the Chief Forester reclassified
the San Gorgonio Recreation Area as the San Gorgonio Primitive Area and expanded the area
by an additional 20,000 acres. The San Gorgonio high country would be protected -- at
least for now.
By 1941, the area was considered by many factions looking
to develop the San Gorgonio area as "the ONLY area that can adequately meet the
tremendous local need for ideal outdoor winter recreation." In July 1941, after much
study, the Forest Service developed a "compromise plan" to appease interested
parties. Under this plan, the Primitive Area's north boundary line would be drawn inward
(south) to South Fork Meadows where lodges, a ski resort, and rope tows up the north
slopes of Jepson Peak and San Gorgonio would be installed. A public hearing was then held
on the matter during which many advocates for the protection of San Gorgonio expressed
their grave disappointment and total opposition to the Forest Service decision. The Forest
Service decided to withhold its end decision until after the end of World War II, which
the country was busily mounting for.
In December 1946, under intense pressure from skiers, the
Regional Forester announced notice of a plan to develop the San Gorgonio Primitive Area
under the outline described above. A ninety day notice was given and a public hearing was
to be held. Round two of the fight to save San Gorgonio had begun. On February 19, 1947,
the San Bernardino Civic Auditorium was packed with an emotional crowd which showed up to
save the Primitive Area. The majority of those present were opposed to the modification
and development, but there was no call for a vote. The Forest Service would deliver a
decision as soon as possible.
On June 18, 1947, Chief Forester Lyle F. Watts
(victoriously) announced that the "San Gorgonio Primitive Area has a higher public
value as a wilderness and a watershed than as a downhill ski area". The victory
seemed won, although still, no federal law protected the primitive area. The decision to
change this designation in favor of development could occur anytime, with the decision and
imminent development being irrevocable. For conservationists, the battle was temporarily
won, but certainly not over.
In 1939, under the then new Forest Service regulation U-1,
unbroken tracts between 5,000 and 100,00 acres could be declared "Wild Areas".
Finally, by 1955, the San Gorgonio Primitive Area had now become the San Gorgonio Wild
Area. No protest of any kind was received against the designation, although the region was
still too small to qualify as federal wilderness.
By December 1962, the continuing threat from ski
associations prompted the formation of the Defenders of the San Gorgonio Wilderness, an
amazing group headed by Harry James and Joe Momyer (a retired San Bernardino postal
superintendent) and secretary Alice Krueper (Sadly, Alice Krueper, the tireless San
Gorgonio Volunteer Association volunteer died on March 16, 1996).