By Hilda L. Solis
Respete la naturaleza.
Respect your natural habit.
My Dad taught me that as a child as we explored the San Gabriel Mountains. The sprawling forests, rolling hills and gentle streams reminded him of his childhood home in Veracruz, Mexico. Trips into the mountains were his way of reconnecting to his roots. He shared it with his children, so it would be a part of us, too.
There’s a common misconception that Mexico is all desert. But large swaths of my father’s home country resemble the picturesque mountain range that overlooked my childhood home. During many day trips each summer with my six siblings, we would bring sandwiches and barbecue and go hiking, biking and wading through the shallow waters of the San Gabriel River, picking watercresses like Dad did in his native home.
Growing up in La Puente, Calif., I was always awed when snow fell at the higher altitudes even as the weather was mild in the valley below. On a clear day, the backdrop of snow-capped mountains in sunny Southern California was a surreal reminder of nature’s indescribable beauty.
When it did snow, we would take car rides into the mountains and ride inner tubes down the hills. And we’d watch in amazement after the thaw, as the sudden rush of water streamed down the hillsides and filled the watershed.
As a child of the San Gabriel Valley, I was struck by the contrast between our polluted industrial community set against the mountains’ vast, verdant expanse. In my zip code, we lived near a Superfund site, 17 gravel pits, and 5 polluted landfills, including one in the backyard of an elementary school. Several miles away in zip code 90210—Beverly Hills—there were zero landfills, zero gravel pits, and zero chemical plants.
I declared my first candidacy for office standing atop a polluted quarry sharing a fence line with homes and playgrounds where schoolchildren breathed in dirty air. When I was elected to the State Assembly in 1992, I announced that two of my priorities were cleaning up the valley in an economically responsible way and preserving the pristine mountains above.
In 1999, a statewide referendum helped accomplish the first goal as California became the first state to pass an environmental justice law that helped safeguard low-income communities from toxic hazards. This week, the Interior Department brought us to the precipice of meeting the second.
As a member of Congress, I passed a bill requiring the Interior Department to study designating the San Gabriel Watershed and Mountains part of America’s national park system. The findings were just announced: the San Gabriel Mountains and Puente Hills are, in fact, nationally significant and suitable for inclusion in the national park system due to their unique natural and cultural value. The study confirmed what so many Californians have long known.
As Labor Secretary, one of my jobs is to ensure that our workforce has enough skilled individuals to work in the park service, the forest service and the Army Corps of Engineers. We need qualified professionals to do jobs that range from studying local ecosystems to protecting wildlife and plant life to promoting natural tourism.
That’s why my department funded an innovative training program to expose underserved young people to these careers by taking them into the forest just east of the San Gabriel Mountains past the Cajon Pass. San Bernardino youth who were once members of street gangs journey into the forest to learn workforce conservation skills that are needed for public land management careers. From graffiti-splattered public housing, these youth are transported from unsightly environments to beautiful ones so they can see the value of unspoiled natural habitats.
I hope more youth can benefit from these types of programs. Soon the Interior Department will decide whether to employ a brand-new model of national park management in which different federal agencies would work collaboratively to protect mountain ecosystems, preserve large open spaces for recreation and offer new educational opportunities for visitors.
The San Gabriel Mountains mean so much to the 1.5 million residents of the Valley. I encourage my neighbors to attend public meetings this month and next and share their feelings as a final decision is made about a designation that could help preserve this national treasure for generations to come.
Respete la naturaleza.
Hilda L. Solis is the United States Secretary of Labor.