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Santa Clarita CA
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Today in
S.C.V. History
March 20
2012 - County supervisors approve 50-year operating agreement for Placerita Canyon State Park [read]

U.S. Rep. Steve Knight introduced legislation Wednesday that would place nearly 70,000 acres above Castaic Lake into “wilderness” and declare the St. Francis Dam site in San Francisquito Canyon a national monument.

Knight’s HR 3153, the “Saint Francis Dam Disaster National Memorial and Castaic Wildness Act,” would place 69,812 acres currently under U.S. Forest Service management into the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Under federal law, “wilderness” is defined as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man” and where nobody lives. It generally “provides outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation;” and it “may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.”

Hiking, horseback riding, climbing, hunting, fishing, bird watching and several other activities are allowed, but homes, commercial enterprises, roads, motorized vehicles, and “mechanized” vehicles such as bicycles are not.

Nonetheless, the borders of the proposed wilderness area have been drawn in such a way that several trails currently used by mountain bikers are left just outside of the perimeter, and the bill specifies that uses not allowed in a wilderness area are allowed to abut it.

al3030_largeBordering the eastern edge of the proposed wilderness, which stretches from Castaic on the west to San Francisquito Canyon, is the site of the former St. Francis Dam. Part of the city of L.A.’s water system, the dam impounded 12.5 billion gallons of the L.A.’s drinking water until it broke just before midnight on March 12, 1928. The subsequent flood killed an estimated 431 people from Saugus to the Pacific Ocean, where the floodwaters emptied 5.5 hours later.

The dam site is a California historic landmark but has not been federally recognized even though the dam disaster affected communities and changed the way dams were built across the country.

Knight’s bill would designate 440 acres in the canyon as the St. Francis Dam National Monument to be administered by the National Park Service, and create a commission to figure out “how best to commemorate” the disaster.

“It is important to educate the public and honor the individuals who perished in the St. Francis Dam Disaster,” Knight, R-Palmdale, said in a statement. “This memorial site is a high priority for the Santa Clarita Valley, and I am proud to be part of the effort to make it happen.”

HR 3153 is cosponsored by Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Westlake Village, who represents the Ventura County portions of the St. Francis Dam floodpath.

Knight’s predecessor, Rep. Buck McKeon, introduced a bill (also cosponsored by Brownley) that would have memorialized the dam victims, but it came late in McKeon’s final term in Congress and stopped short of designating a national monument.

The idea to pursue federal recognition for the dam disaster came about four years ago when Dr. Alan Pollack, president of the SCV Historical Society, visited the Johnstown Flood National Memorial in Pennsylvania where more than 2,000 people were killed in an 1889 dam break.

gr0841“Then I started reading about Johnstown and I came to realize there were so many similarities between that disaster and this one,” Pollack said. “You had a dam that was poorly constructed, you have this big tragedy happen, hundreds of people dying, whole families … and that’s what we had here.

“There was one glaring difference between the two disasters,” Pollack said. “In Johnstown, they had a national memorial, visitor center, documentary film – and the St. Francis Dam has nothing. So I figured, why not try to do this with the St. Francis Dam?”

Pollack recruited Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel, president of the Santa Clara River Watershed Conservancy and executive director of the Community Hiking Club, to rally support in Washington.

“I am delighted that Congressman Knight has introduced this wonderful bill,” Erskine-Hellrigel said. “It has been 87 years since the Saint Francis Disaster. Families have waited long enough for their loved ones to be memorialized, and Congressman Knight has accepted this challenge. Not only has he worked hard to give these families closure, but he is protecting the last available pristine wilderness in the district for generations to come.”

Added Assemblyman Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita: “Many thanks to Congressman Steve Knight for his foresight in protecting 69,000 acres of pristine wilderness for generations to come, and for having the federal government acknowledge the greatest civil engineering tragedy in the United States, the Saint Francis Dam failure. This memorial will honor those that had fallen and will help bring closure to friends and families.”

Read the bill text [here].

Find more about the St. Francis Dam Disaster at [SFDMonument.com].


Jessica Boyer of Hometownstation.com contributed to this story.

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  1. Great story. Thank you. If this area becomes wilderness, nothing mechanized will be permitted within the boundaries of the wilderness. That being said, we are not closing any roads. Cienega canyon will remain open to bicycles, all fire road s will remain open, and there are new multi-use trails that will soon be available for multi-use in the area by the county. In addition, our boundary lines have been adjusted for additional OHV recreation that will go from Bear Canyon, above the potential wilderness, all the way to Riverside. This is also a county project.

  2. One of the great things about this bill is that it will protect Native American habitation sites, cupules, petroglyphs, and burial grounds. The area is filled with wonderful pieces of history left behind by the Native American inhabitants. The area was inhabited by numerous bands of Tataviam.

  3. Tony Arnold says:

    The proposed St. Francis Dam Monument will be a nice addition to our community and it’s great to see this proposed as a Monument.

    The Wilderness proposal is very disappointing. Having been on some of the land proposed for Wilderness on hikes, bicycle adventures and motorcycles, it’s evident that at least a substantial portion doesn’t qualify as Wilderness under the federal Wilderness Act. In addition, as the article mentions, designating this land as Wilderness forever shuts out bicycles and all other mechanized activity. It forever drastically impacts how we manage this land and eliminates many recreational uses for land that’s so close to Santa Clarita and Los Angeles.

    As an avid off-road bicycle rider, I am deeply disappointed in Representative Knight for introducing such sweeping, limiting and draconian legislation with little or no input from current and potential users of the land. This bill will likely pass through Congress un-noticed and it will impact few today. Unfortunately in the coming years it will impact the region in ways not yet imagined.

    For those that love strict federal government control of public lands and restricting access from so many users and user groups, this Bill is a win. This application is an abuse of the Wilderness Act and a disappointing early sign of Representative Knight’s concern for all of his constituents and his willingness to place so much control of local land in DC.

  4. Tessa Lucero says:

    So the PCT is basically the north boundary of the proposed national monument?

  5. Ken Raleigh says:

    The St. Francis Dam Monument is a good idea. But designating 70,000 acres of land so near to our community as Wilderness deserves more public input. Congressman McKeon held a town hall meeting on this very issue that was well attended and at which there was SIGNIFICANT opposition. Why no public input something as significant as this?

  6. Ken Raleigh says:

    I think a monument area for the St. Francis Dam disaster is a good idea. However, setting aside 70,000 acres of federal land as a Wilderness is not necessary to honor the St. Francis Dam tragedy. Establishing a Wilderness area of such magnitude in an urban area is deserving of public input and discussion. Congressman McKeon held a Town Hall Meeting on this very issue only a year ago and found that there was SIGNIFICANT opposition to this Wilderness proposal. Why no input from the public on this?

  7. Susan Hall says:

    A memorial would be fine but taking 70k of public land away from the public multiuser is ridiculous! Then only people healthy or rich enough to hike or ride horses can use the land.The disabled are completely left out. Please reconsider.

  8. Roland Wyler says:

    A memorial great very appropriate. A wilderness area no.

  9. Chris w. says:

    This proposal is a disaster in the making it’s self. Putting the lands into wilderness status and under national monument/parks control severely restricts healthy forests management. This area specifically is an annual nightmare of forest fires hence why the majority of it looks like a barren desert. If the historicle society wants a memorial they already have one in Santa Paula fix that one up and buy a building with the capacity to hold museum artifacts. If there truly is enough interest to keep it open then let god provide.
    As for the wilderness again the issues are access for fire management, access for OHV routes, Acesss for Mt.Bikers, hunters and fisherman. We are the people LIVING today that do not need another restriction to our favorite activities because of some past generations bad choices. Don’t make another bad choice here say no to the monument

  10. John Horning says:

    This proposed legislation is more bad legislation. A “Wilderness” designation of any PUBLIC national forest land is simply a tool to curtail use and access.
    There were a number of “Town Hall” type meetings that I attended. From what I saw at these meetings was opposition to a Wilderness designation. I think most of the people attending were all for equal access. These lands don’t just belong to hikers, or horseback riders, or mountain bikers – they belong to everyone.
    Since the National Forrest areas belong to the public and are supported by taxpayer dollars, then I feel this issue should be voted upon by the very people that support these areas – the PUBLIC!
    We’ve had enough of bad legislation from Washington that restricts more and more of our freedoms. Please don’t compound that with even more bad legislation. Don’t be that guy!

  11. Leon Worden says:

    Why is it that nobody ever seems to want to address one of the most fundamental facts – namely that the proposed wilderness area is riddled with sacred Native American cultural/archaeological/burial sites, a number of which have been desecrated in recent years by motorized and non-motorized vehicles? I truly believe that if we were on the East Coast rather than La-La Land, the federal government would protect them with armed park rangers. Out here, the Forest Service — well, I should probably keep my thoughts about the Forest Service to myself.

  12. John Horning says:

    Saving native american sites and broken dam debris is all well and good within reason. But 70,000 acres? If that’s the case then why not set aside that much area around University High School in Santa Monica? There is a wonderful natural springs there that was used by the Tongva people since the 5th Century BC. It’s called Serra Springs and has been fenced off for protection. Setting aside a memorial area for St. Francis Dam is fine – just make it around the original site. There are memorials already set up at Powerhouse 2, Santa Paula and Ventura. How many more are necessary?

    • SCVNews.com says:

      (1) Under the bill, the Dam Monument and the 70,000-acre Castaic wilderness are two separate things; (2) there is not yet a federal (national park-type) visitors center relating to the dam disaster, which this bill might lead to.

  13. Chris Johnson says:

    The St. Francis Dam disaster monument area is a good idea. The designation of 70,000 acres of federal land as a Wilderness is not. Wilderness areas are severely restrictive to citizens, and the rules for permitted users are based on emotion, not empirical evidence. The constituents of U.S. Rep. Steve Knight, Assemblyman Scott Wilk and Rep. Julia Brownley should take political action if this bill is implemented.
    Pass the monument, veto the wilderness.

    Lastly, Scott Wilk is incorrect. The tragedy was not due to civil engineering failure. The dam had been partially built on an ancient landslide site, which shifted under the massive weight of the dam. “Considering the technology available at the time, there was no way…any of the people working on the dam would have known about this gigantic landslide.”

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