An Article from Sunset Magazine January 2001. Reprinted with permission and courtesy of Sunset Magazine and photographer David Zaitz

How green were

my hillsides

The Puente-Chino Hills are among the most beautiful in Southern California. Will they stay that way?

By Matthew Jaffe

Savoring a green island in a suburban sea, double-decker day hikers explore the Puente Hills above La Habra Heights


As a late winter storm breaks up, remnant clouds move across the Puente Hills, casting fast-moving shadows on a rolling landscape of Irish green.

For a moment, it is easy to become lost in the scene, to imagine perhaps that you are in the middle of some Celtic countryside. The reality is that you are dead center in the Southern California megalopolis, in a low-elevation mountain range that local usage usually divides into the Puente and Chino Hills.

Combined, the Puente and Chino Hills run 30 miles across the Los An-geles Basin, never rising more than 1,800 feet or spreading wider than 10 miles across. They are in many ways islands besieged. Homes creep up their slopes, freeways and boulevards skirt their edges, and industrial buildings spread out from their bases. The pressures these inland, in-city ranges face are obvious.

As you continue hiking, your eyes begin to skip over the urbanization to take in one of Southern California's great views. On a clear, midwinter day, it encompasses the snowcapped San Gabriel Mountains, Malibu, Camp Pendleton, and the Santa Ana Mountains in Orange County. Hidden from view are the secluded canyons and creeks that provide critical habitat for wildlife. Most people don't know much about these hills. Those who do are trying to save what's left.


Above the fray?

As you climb Hacienda Boulevard into La Habra Heights, there's a sense of stepping back into an earlier Southern California. With its citrus and avocado groves, the community comes close to preserving a lifestyle lost long ago in most of the region.

The community atmosphere is no accident. Residents have fought hard over a 60-year period to hold on to the vision of Edwin G. Hart, who first developed the area as a rural residential community.

Civic activism has played a big role in attempts to preserve open space in these hills. So have the efforts of residents in nearby Whittier and the involvement of agencies, including the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land. Bit by bit the hills are being saved.


A canyon preserved

One of the most beautilul spots in the Puente-Chino Hills is Powder Canyon, a wooded fissure with a little creek that serves as a vital corridor for wildlife. At 517 acres, the recently acquired canyon may seem modest in size. But if it can be combined with privately held properties and land un-der lease to oil companies, it will provide a bridge for wildlife to travel from the Cleveland National Forest through these hills and ultimately up the San Gabriel River into the San Gabriel Mountains.

"The fact that Powder Canyon exists at all is extraordinary" says Jill Kowalik, a UCLA literature and philosophy professor, who along with her husband, Bill, has been active in local open-space-preservation efforts.

For more than a decade, Kowalik has also been battling breast cancer. Early on, her prognosis wasn't good and Kowalik decided to put her energies into the local environment rather than into a planned book on the psychological impacts of the 30 Years' War in 17th-century Germany.

"I had to decide whether I should try to finish a book that maybe 50 people in the world would read or try to help set up something that would have an impact on a lot more people for a long time," she says. "I had read an article that described how people who live a long life often have a social purpose that helps their longevity. I thought maybe if I do something socially useful, it would help me live longer. And it did. Now I'm finishing the book that I started before."

While preservation of the Puente-Chino Hills may seem mostly a backyard issue, the area has a greater global significance. (In fact, Bill Kowalik points out, it's visible from space as a great dark patch in nighttime satellite imagery of the sparkling Los Angeles Basin.) According to Alissa Ing, associate resource ecologist at Chino Hills State Park, because the biodiversity of the Southwest region is so high, the biological issues playing out here are no less significant than those of a tropical rain forest. Acquisitions like the recent purchase of Coal Canyon, adjacent to the l2,4OO-acre Chino Hills State Park help preserve connections all the way down into Mexico.

"Keeping these connections intact will ensure the health of an incredibly diverse isthmus of native habitat smack dab in the middle of the L.A. basin," Ing says. "This is an absolutely fabulous patch of biology.