On June 3, the Santa Monica Mountains (SAMO) Fund celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA) and the 30th anniversary of the non-profit organization that supports the park and its programs. Guests gathered at the SMMNRA’s visitor center at King Gillette Ranch in the heart of the mountains for an evening of music and refreshments. An award was presented to the Samo Fund’s first president, Jim Hines. The weather was warm. The evening pleasant. One wouldn’t know that the park being celebrated was once regarded as an impossibility, and that the process to create it was a saga that spanned decades and involved enough twists and turns and cliffhangers for several entire seasons of a political thriller.
Griffith Park, the easternmost section of the Santa Monica Mountains, was the first part of the range set aside for open space. It was donated to the City of Los Angeles in 1896 by the eponymous Griffith J. Griffith, and for decades remained the only significant park in Los Angeles.
Frederick Hastings Rindge, who purchased the entire 13,000-acre Topanga Malibu Sequit Rancho in 1892, often spoke of his desire to create a “forest reserve” in the Santa Monica Mountains.
The reserve, however, was “bitterly opposed” by mountain homesteaders, who claimed the park was “ a selfish scheme of the Rindges,” according to the February 10, 1907 Los Angeles Times report.
Rindge also encountered opposition from the State Mining Bureau and Lewis Aubury, the official State Mineralogist, who advised the Forestry Service that the reserve would be “unwise.”
Although the official objection was local opposition, there is evidence to suggest Aubry wasn’t endeavoring to protect the settlers’ access so much as the interests of the oil and stone quarrying industries. The forest reserve proposal was denied in 1907, two years after Rindge’s death.
Opposition to real estate developer Alphonzo Bell’s scheme to quarry limestone and manufacture concrete in what is now Topanga State Park touched off the first high-profile battle in the fight to save the mountains.
At one time, Bell owned much of the Westside, and built a fortune in real estate development and oil investments. His name is still all over the L.A. landscape—Bel-Air, Bell Canyon, Bell Gardens, and Bell—but the quarry project was too much even in an era when there were few environmental protections or restrictions on development.
That fight became physical at a test blast on May 22, 1929, when proponents and opponents of Bell’s plan gathered in Traylor Canyon to watch what was allegedly a 9000-pound explosive test blast at the quarry site. The L.A. Times described it as “a free-for-all fight…many loud words were spoken, fists flew, coats were removed by several prospective battlers, and one man was knocked to the ground.”
The real fight took place later in front of the Los Angeles Planning Commission, when opponents of the project alleged the size of the blast was falsified to make the impact appear less.
The L.A. Times gleefully proclaimed: “Quarry Turned into Battlefield: Court Action May Echo Fight at Bell’s Blast Test, Backers of Bell’s Rock Crusher Plan Attack Scientists, Planning Commission Sees Clash, Also Much Dust.”
One of Bell’s “so-called” expert witnesses “fled the stand,” his testimony stricken from the record when it become apparent that he “was not qualified to answer,” the Times reported.
The hearings dragged on for months. Bell objecting all the while to charges of bad faith and dubious business dealings and the antagonism of his own creditors, who held a $1.5 million interest in the property.
Celebrities and socialites joined the fray. Mary Pickford and Will Rogers vehemently opposed the project. So did Leon Kauffman, whose elaborate neo-Renaissance mansion still looms above Pacific Coast Highway near Sunset Blvd., where it is often mistaken for the Getty Villa. Kaufman invited the LA City Council to visit his home and see first-hand how the noise and dust from the quarry would affect the area’s residents.
Kaufman’s neighbor, Sylvia Morrison, a wealthy and well-connected Pacific Palisades resident who was an early advocate for open space, called for the canyon to be preserved as Whitestone National Park.
“Beauty is our greatest asset in this district, and our heritage of the hills must not be wasted,” Morrison stated at a 1928 hearing. It would be 50 years before her vision became a reality.
The quarry plan collapsed in 1930. The Times reported that “one unfortunate effect of the controversy was that “the confidence of the public in the integrity, or at least the good judgement, of some of its public officials was badly shaken.” It wouldn’t be the last time.
There were other efforts to create a Santa Monica Mountains park. In 1930, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., the son of the architect of Central Park in New York City, proposed a 10,000-acre chain of parks throughout the Santa Monica Mountains, including Lower Topanga Canyon and the Coast.
The forward-thinking Olmsted envisioned a network of parks, beaches, playgrounds, and open space that would have circled the L.A. Basin with a ring of public lands. Olmsted’s proposal was quashed by developers and officials with a stake in development, but his plan has returned in a slightly different form in recent decades as the Rim of Valley proposal.
Los Angeles County had another opportunity to create a Santa Monica Mountains park in 1938, when Rindge’s widow, May Knight Rindge, filed for bankruptcy. The county was offered nearly 17,000 acres in exchange for canceling slightly more than $1 million in unpaid taxes. The offer was rejected, but the county did end up purchasing the beach at Zuma several years later, belatedly realizing that there was a need for more public beach access.
Will Rogers State Historic Park became the first public park created since Griffith Park in 1896. It was followed by 6,700-acre Point Mugu State Park in 1967. With the acquisition of the Point Mugu acreage came renewed calls for a National Park—this time to be called Toyon National Park.
Alphonzo Bell, Jr., the son of the quarry project developer, and an eight-term member of Congress, introduced a Toyon National Park bill in 1971. It didn’t pass, in part because critics argued that there wasn’t enough public land to warrant the National Park designation.
Park advocates refused to give up. California acquired the 11,525-acre Topanga State Park in 1974—including part of the site of the hotly contested quarry in Traylor (now Trailer) Canyon, and 2,700-acre Malibu Creek State Park in 1978. While the National Park Service would not officially acquire any land in the mountains until Paramount Ranch in 1980, the state land was enough of a foundation to anchor the final push for the park.
The final campaign for a Santa Monica Mountains National Park was spearheaded by three extraordinary local activists, Sue Nelson, Jill Swift, and Margo Feuer. Their grassroots effort, aided by Congressman Anthony Beilenson, led to the creation of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in 1978.
The activists had one more major battle. Just two years after Congress created the park, President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, an outspoken opponent, nearly succeeded in de-authorizing it. Park proponents fought back and won.
The park continues to face challenges that have included funding shortfalls and a constant battle against development interests, but it has endured for 40 years and continues to grow.
The SMMNRA technically encompasses 153,075 acres, but only slightly more than half of the total acreage is parkland. However, that percentage is still growing and may one day finally become the Rim of the Valley park first envisioned by Olmstead, nearly a hundred years ago.
The Santa Monica Mountains Fund was created in 1988 to help fund the park and its programs.