The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA) has three official founding mothers who fought to make the park a reality. Women have always been on the frontline of politics, activism, and policy-making in the mountains from the start of the 20th century to the present. An army of mothers, grandmothers, daughters, aunts, and Amazon warriors, determined to save the things that make this place special.
Almost all of the big western national parks were created from huge swaths of wilderness. The SMMNRA—spread across 153,075 acres and 26 zip codes on the edge of one of the most densely populated urban areas in the country—had to be pieced together like a patchwork out of fabric acquired one square at a time by federal, state, and local agencies. It is quilted together by the National Park Service (NPS), the agency that oversees the entire area.
Today, the SMMNRA extends from the western end of the Santa Monica Mountains in Ventura County, along the entire Malibu coast, and through the mountains to Topanga and beyond, reaching as far east as Franklin Canyon above Beverly Hills. In addition, there are plans to extend the park designation to the Rim of the Valley, more than doubling the park’s size.
When Sue Nelson, Jill Swift, and Margot Feuer, the “mothers of the mountains,” began their crusade to make the Santa Monica Mountains and shoreline into a national park, the National Park Service didn’t own a single acre. The women began their push for it with just three pieces of the pattern: Point Mugu, Leo Carrillo, and Topanga State Parks.
Topanga was, in many ways, the spark that ignited the campaign for a national park. The earliest effort to create the park was started here in the 1920s by another extraordinary woman activist. Sylvia Morrison, a wealthy and well-connected Pacific Palisades resident, who lobbied for the creation of “Whitestone National Park,” after real estate developer Alphonzo Bell proposed dynamiting part of what is now Topanga State Park for a limestone quarry.
“Our heritage of the hills must not be wasted,” Morrison stated at a 1928 hearing. The opposition she spearheaded helped stop the quarry plan in 1930; but the Depression put an end to her proposal for Whitestone National Park.
Topanga was the flashpoint again in 1963, when county planners began pushing for massive development in the eastern Santa Monica Mountains, spreading along the ridge lines from Topanga to Sullivan Canyon.
At a December 1963 meeting, Architect William Pereira, the designer of the project, outlined plans “to turn the Santa Monica Mountains into a vast home community.” The Mountain Park development proposed ten “village centers,” spread over more than 11,000 acres of previously undeveloped mountain terrain, accommodating a population of 60,000. More than half of that development was proposed for Topanga.
In an effort to appease the ferocious opposition to the plan coming from Topanga, the developers of Mountain Park proposed a university campus and research and development facility on 300 acres at Topanga Summit instead of housing tracts.
A 1963 Los Angeles Times article described a proposal that sounds more like the lair of a James Bond movie villain than anything that would be feasible in real life, complete with “facilities concealed in architectural caves in the steep canyons,” and “cascade housing built into the hillside itself and served by ‘inclinators,’ [that will] take the place of high rise apartment towers.”
The park part of the plan focused on setting aside 1400 acres for open space. Critics of the plan charged that the land set aside for a park was too steep to be built, and was therefore no loss for the developers. They argued that the developers were seeking high-density mountaintop tract-house subdivisions connected by a multi-lane road, and had no intentions of preserving anything not buildable. The elaborate SciFi movie-inspired proposal was just set dressing to make the project more attractive.
Topanga, with a population of around 3,000, refused to take the bait. They pushed back, hard. Architect Bob Bates, together with his wife, Donna, and a small group of dedicated activists founded the Topanga Association for a Scenic Community (TASC) in October 1963, the year the plans for Mountain Park development surfaced. One of the most high-profile activists opposing the plan was actress and Topanga luminary, Herta Ware Geer, but most of the activists were ordinary residents, many were housewives, and they met in living rooms after work and on weekends to plan the opposition.
Together with Santa Monica Regional Park Association, TASC fought back for nearly two years. Volunteers gathered more than 10,000 signatures opposing the plan and advocating for the creation of a real park. It would take almost ten years for that vision to become a reality.
The state acquired Leo Carrillo State Park in 1953, and 6700-acre Point Mugu in 1967. Critics argued it wasn’t enough for a national park, but that didn’t stop conservationists from trying. Alphonzo Bell, Jr., son of the quarry developer and an eight-term member of Congress, introduced the Toyon National Park bill in 1971. It didn’t pass, but it provided the impetus for the final push.
The state obtained 11,525-acre Topanga State Park in 1974 after the Mountain Park plan finally collapsed under pressure from the local activists. The 1976 California Coastal Act created guidelines for protecting coastal resources, including much of the Santa Monica Mountains, but Topanga was still at risk, and TASC continued to battle plans for everything from Sunset Mesa-style cut-and-fill tracts with hundreds of homes, to a small city, complete with an airport.
In the late 1970s, with the acquisition of Topanga State Park, Nelson, Swift, and Feuer led the local grassroots effort, aided by Congressman Anthony Beilenson, to create the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
Feuer, a Malibu resident who worked for years to save the coast, became a Sierra Club lobbyist to advocate for the park plan. Nelson, who became an activist over the plans to develop Topanga, founded Friends of the Santa Monica Mountains Park and Seashore. She worked with Beilenson to craft the language of the bill. Swift, a homemaker and passionate naturalist and hiker, founded the Santa Monica Mountains Task Force to help save the mountains. She led protests and public hiking events to oppose development and build support for the park.
The three activists gained the support of Representative Phil Burton, chair of the Interior Subcommittee on Parks. He included the Santa Monica Mountains in his 1978 Parks Omnibus Bill.
The bill passed despite opposition and the newly created Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area was signed into existence by President Jimmy Carter. Three years later, James Watt, President Ronald Reagan’s newly appointed Secretary of the Interior, attempted to de-authorize the National Recreation Area. Park proponents pushed back. Unable to unmake the park, Watt worked to cut federal funding.
The state had already begun adding beaches, mountains, and canyons to the network of parks. It acquired a major piece of the quilt—Malibu Creek State Park— in 1978, but also some key smaller pieces like 63-acre Point Dume State Beach in 1979. Without federal funding a new strategy was needed for the park to succeed.
The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC) and the Mountains Restoration and Conservation Authority (MRCA), formed in 1979, enabled the state to acquire key sections of parkland the federal government refused to fund. The SMMC has successfully negotiated the acquisition of 60,000 acres of open space over the past 40 years, including Paramount Ranch, the first NPS property in the SMMNRA, purchased in 1980, but it couldn’t have succeeded without the help of grassroots activists.
In 1990, Nelson, together with a new generation of TASC volunteers, including TASC chair Susan Nissman, and longtime local activist Rabyn Blake, took on another attack on Topanga, the 275-acre Montevideo development, later known as Canyon Oaks, proposed for the Topanga Summit. This wasn’t some exotic underground movie villain set, it was a massive luxury housing development, with golf course, and country club estates right at the headwaters of Topanga Creek.
Nissman joined TASC shortly after she and her husband, Arthur, moved to Topanga in the late 1970s. Nissman, an artist, grew up in a family that appreciated nature. She and her husband were drawn to Topanga because of its natural beauty. She recalls stumbling into environmental conservation in the canyon.
“There was a table laid out below us in a field and people riding around on horseback,” Nissman recalled. “They were all there protesting a new subdivision. My husband and I walked up, and boom!” she told the Messenger Mountain News. When the Montevideo development was proposed, Nissman jumped into the fray. She worked extensively with Nelson but also remembers Swift.
“Sue had a tough intelligence,” Nissman said. “She never deviated from her core mission to protect the Santa Monica Mountains. She wanted to save it for everyone. Jill was intense. They both had tremendous focus.”
Nissman also worked with Rabyn Blake. The women forged a strong friendship during the fight to save the Summit. Nissman describes it as truly being like a military campaign in the sense that it was one that required grueling hours of strategy, rallying troops to pack dozens of Los Angeles County meetings in downtown LA, and a lot of patience and stamina as the fight ground on for 16 years.
They were aided by other extraordinary women—Archeologist Lynn Gamble joined Nelson in Washington DC to give testimony to Congress; Resource Conservation District biologist Rosi Dagit shared her knowledge of mountain ecology; and Topanga Town Council president Marty Brastow. The activists knew they were facing a marathon, not a sprint and won in part by wearing down the opposition. In 1994, the development company agreed to transfer the property to the Conservancy. Today Summit Valley Edmund D. Edelman Park is named for the Los Angeles County Supervisor who worked with the activists, and managed the eleventh-hour play that saved the land.
Blake went on to found the Topanga Creek Watershed Committee, and the Santa Monica Mountains Coalition for Alternatives to Toxins (SCAT). She remained an activist until her death in 2018. In 1994, Nissman became Los Angeles County Third District Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s representative. She used her position in the county to continue to fight for the mountains, helping to craft the Local Coastal Program—the guidelines to protect the area. She is retired now, but continues to advocate for the mountains.
Nelson’s daughter, Sara Nelson Horner, is the founder of the Santa Monica Mountains Fund, and an activist in her own right.
Today, nearly 75 percent of Topanga is protected as part of the SMMNRA. While Nissman, Blake, and Nelson were fighting to save Topanga, they were part of a wider community of activists fighting on all fronts to save the mountains. Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, activists worked to save 5400-acre Ahmanson Ranch, 2300-acre Jordan Ranch in Palo Comado Canyon, and 588-acre King Gillette Ranch, which, at the urging of Margot Feuer, became home to the Santa Monica Mountains Anthony C. Beilenson Interagency Visitor Center.
Feuer was able to visit the completed visitor center just days before her death in 2012. She was 89. A plaque at the visitor center features this quote from Feuer about the creation of the National Recreation Area: “The public is so often chastised for not really hanging in to achieve action on a particular cause. This reaffirms the need for really hanging in. All those people who worked—for that length of time—did it.”
The SMMNRA, the largest urban national park in the world, continues to face challenges that include a constant battle against development interests, drought, and wildfire, but instead of an anomaly, this patchwork park is now considered a prime example of how new national parks can be created in and around urban centers.
A new generation has always stepped forward to carry on the fight, and many of those advocates continue to be women: daughters of the mountains. Women like Mary Weisbrock, the founder of Save Open Space, and Kim Lamorie, president of the Las Virgenes Homeowners Association, continue to work to save the mountains, and they are just two of many.
“We all have to be mothers of the Santa Monica Mountains,” Nissman said. She explained that she is currently focused on helping the National Recreation Area recover from the catastrophic impact of the Woolsey Fire.
“Taking care of Mother Earth is the biggest expression of caring,” she said. n
In November 2019, just days after the Woolsey Fire, the Los Angeles Times approached Messenger Mountain News Associate Editor Suzanne Guldimann about writing a piece on the three original “Mothers of the Mountains.” This article is a deeper look at the official three, but also includes some of the other remarkable women who have fought to save the mountains for all of us for all time.