A Brief History of the San Gorgonio Wilderness and 
the San Gorgonio Wilderness Association


B
ackground

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 Sierra Nevada 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 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 followed.


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. Alice Krueper

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).

 

"The [Sierra] club was about to accede to the decision makers of the Forest Service and ski business in the battle for the San Gorgonio Wilderness. I did a Paul Revere act most of one winter night, the board stiffened, and the wilderness is still there"     David Brower

Developers attempted to prevent the area from being included in the new proposed Wilderness Bill. Finally, on July 30 1964, to the disappointment of developers, the federal Wilderness Bill sailed through the House of Representatives. The Wilderness Act promised to "secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness….. an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain". Thus, the San Gorgonio Wilderness was born.

It was only through the tremendous efforts of the Defenders of the Wilderness, the Sierra Club, and legions of conservationists that the present-day San Gorgonio Wilderness survived the onslaught of skiers. Even after the signing of the bill, developers continued their efforts. The last big effort at development was in 1971, but once again the Defenders foiled the developers' plans.



The San Gorgonio Wilderness Association is Born

Out of the Defenders arose the San Gorgonio Volunteer Association (SGVA). In 2000, to better 
enable the general public to immediately know what and where the SGVA served and protected, the organization's name was changed to San Gorgonio Wilderness Association (SGWA). Presently, the group is at 125 members and grows slightly at the start of each new season. The San Gorgonio Wilderness Association works in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service in caring for the San Gorgonio Wilderness and neighboring areas on the San Bernardino National Forest. These areas include the Big Bear Lake recreation area, a popular weekend destination for throngs of city dwellers.

Because of declining funds in the late 1970's, the Forest Service closed the Barton Flats Visitor Center. In 1986, the Defenders reopened the Visitor Center, and a year later the SGWA took over the responsibility of caring for the Center and its visitors -- which continues to this day. The Center is totally staffed by volunteers and serves up to 10,000 visitors each summer. In the San Gorgonio Wilderness, the SGWA single-handedly provides the bulk of trail patrol and maintenance. Often, the only contact the visitor has with a 'ranger' is with an SGWA volunteer. Because of the cooperative association the SGWA has with the Forest Service, all volunteers wear the official U.S. Forest Service uniform and are dispatched on assignments in which they utilize Forest Service hand-held radios. They have proven themselves an invaluable asset to the Forest Service as well as to the public. The official duty of those on trail patrol is to check Wilderness Permit (Adobe Acrobat required), enforce all regulations from an educational standpoint, conduct trail maintenance, and answer the visitor's questions. However, they have often been instrumental in finding lost hikers, aiding the injured, and reporting fires and other hazards.

Other volunteers staff the Barton Flats Visitor Center from May through October. The Visitor Center is the center of activities for the campgrounds in the area. Informal programs are presented with display animals from the San Bernardino County Museum. The Barton Flats area is home to over 20 organizational camps that attract up to 30,000 campers every year. SGWA members develop and present interpretive programs for over a thousand children each year. Nature walks and interpretive programs are also presented to campers from the four area family campgrounds on summer weekends. One of the most popular programs for the last three years has been an informal astronomy presentation, giving campers a chance to peek at the heavens without the city pollution.

SGWA volunteers also serve at the Mill Creek Ranger Station, which is the hub of activity for the San Gorgonio Ranger District. The majority of visitors to the Wilderness stop at the Mill Creek Ranger Station to get their required permit -- it is here they are greeted by SGWA volunteers.

Another essential part of the volunteer effort is the equestrian group. These tireless workers spend many long hours on the trail, after which they tend to their horses before taking a well deserved rest. They have provided services such as packing in survey teams and they patrol and maintain trails both in and out of the Wilderness.

One of the favorite activities is the annual Forest Festival held in mid-August. Smokey Bear provides a warm welcome to up to 1000 visitors. This is a day for the public to get a taste of the Forest. Volunteers provide camping and fishing tips, puppet shows, and crafts. One of the most popular activities involves helping youngsters use a crosscut saw to create a 'tree cookie' that is then branded with both a Forest Service and Smokey logo.

Probably the most rewarding day of the year for the volunteers is the annual Fishing Derby at nearby Jenks Lake. On this special day, inner city children are brought by the bus load for a day of fishing, educational programs and activities, and just plain fun. Many of these children have never been outside the city, and volunteers working in conjunction with the Forest Service and the California Fish and Game department insure that these special children have a day they will not soon forget.

The San Gorgonio Wilderness Association also maintains a presence on the World Wide Web. The web site provides the visitor with a wealth of information for planning a trip to the San Gorgonio Wilderness. Information on trails, trail conditions, weather, wildlife, minimum impact tips, the SGWA newsletter, and information on the SGWA Volunteer Ranger Program can all be found at the web site. The visitor will even find the Backcountry Store where they can purchase maps, books, and Wilderness souvenirs such as patches or pins. The local population has made good use of the trail conditions section as it provides visitors with quick and current information on the state of the trail they wish to hike, such as snow cover and downed trees.

Surely, the San Gorgonio Wilderness could not have retained its primitive nature without the indefatigable efforts of the Defenders of the Wilderness, and now the San Gorgonio Wilderness Association. The SGWA's efforts can only continue through the support of its many generous volunteers, and through the generous donations of individuals and companies. Membership in the San Gorgonio Wilderness Association is $20 and up (annually). The new member will receive "4Victor" (SGWA newsletter) and discounts on all merchandise sold by the SGWA.

Authored by Michael Gordon and Karen Saffle, with the invaluable help of John Robinson's 'San Gorgonio - A Wilderness Preserved'. Read this book for the complete history of the San Gorgonio Wilderness.