Fighting for the Foothills

The Altadena Foothills Conservancy’s latest efforts to protect the environment include an educational film and a park project

By Justin Chapman, Arroyo Monthly, April 2006

For more than a century, Altadenans, Pasadenans and people from all over have enjoyed the trails and wildlife in the foothills of the San Gabriel Valley Mountains. But few realize and appreciate the many people and organizations that fight to keep our foothills accessible, fun and safe for public use -- organizations like the Altadena Foothills Conservancy (AFC).

Founded as a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation in 1999 by several neighbors of Chaney Trail, the AFC is dedicated to the preservation and restoration of our trails, undeveloped land and historic landmarks located in the foothills. It's been working hard ever since to protect wildlife, fight rampant hillside development and, most importantly, educate the public about the urgent issues facing the natural beauty we live in and around.

Altadena is a unique place because it is surrounded on three sides by nature: Angeles National Forest to the north, Eaton Canyon to the east and Arroyo Seco to the west. Urban Pasadena hugs its sometimes disputed southern border. A feeling of community has allowed organizations like the AFC to gain support in conserving and protecting the land.

For its first project, the AFC worked together with the Trust for Public Land, a national land trust, to purchase 15 acres of the Chanel Trail Corridor, a beautiful clearing halved by Alzada Road in between two groups of houses. The neighbors had noticed survey markers on the road and talked to the owners of the land, Werner Mueller and Bill West. While the property was in the hands of the Trust for Public Land, the neighbors who made up the AFC paid part of the appraisal and did all the maintenance work needed. Later they were able to purchase an additional 1.5 acres adjacent to the 15 they already owned.

"There were a few of us on the road that felt that owners of property should be able to get a reasonable return on their investment," said Nancy Steele, president of the AFC. "That it's not fair to fight development unless you're willing to buy the land, which is basically the philosophy of conservancies and land trusts."

In February 2002, the AFC board members went on a retreat to Catalina Island through a grant by the Durfee Foundation, where they penned the first draft of their conservation plan, which was completed later that year and presented to the community via the Altadena Town Council. This plan has been an expanding work in progress ever since.

In 2003, with a $15,000 community partnering grant from the Metropolitan Water District, the AFC requested a biodiversity survey of the canyons by contractor Rick Fisher, which they received in 2004. They also developed a plan for an educational watershed program. They hired town councilwoman Michele Zack, author of "Altadena: Between Wilderness and City," as a consultant. She decided to write a historically accurate one-woman show to tell the story of the development of the first water delivery system in Eaton Canyon through the eyes of Benjamin Eaton's wife, Alice Taylor Eaton. The Eatons moved to the Fair Oaks Ranch in Altadena in 1865 and made settlement of the area possible.

When the AFC decided to make Zack's story into a film, they raised $15,000 through donations from Mrs. Doris Pankow, Altadena Heritage, Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich and Dorn/Platz. A student filmmaker from the Art Center College of Design, Sally Levi, agreed to take up the project. Levi wrote a 15- to 20-minute period narrative based on Zack's original story. The film, "Eaton's Water," was shot on location at the Universal Studios back lot, the LA County Arboretum, Eaton Canyon and in Santa Clarita. It is expected to premiere either this month or in May. To see a trailer of the film, go to

Negotiations are underway with the Pasadena Unified School District to include the film in sixth-grade science, eighth-grade history, and 11th-grade Earth science classes. The AFC met with Superintendent Percy Clark and treated the school board to a viewing of the trailer last October.

The AFC is funded largely by donations, but it writes and requests grants for specific projects it takes up such as the upcoming Watershed Pocket Park. Zack and her husband, Mark, developed the park with the Altadena Watershed Committee, then worked with the AFC in getting a $20,000 city makeover grant.

The custom park, which is expected to be completed by the end of this year, is located on a small triangle of county land on the southwest corner of Woodbury Road and Marengo Avenue. At 8,000 square feet, the low-maintenance park will serve as an informal gateway to Altadena, an example for others interested in water conservation and "a mini-watershed that internally drains and demonstrates use of native and other water-wise plantings," according to the AFC's latest newsletter.

"The park will be a little piece of the foothills brought to the border [of Altadena and Pasadena]," said Watershed Committee Chair Zack.

So what's in the future for the AFC?

"As a land trust, we maintain relationships with property owners whose land we're interested in purchasing," said Steele. "There are several owners we're in the process of negotiating with, but I can't talk about any of them because we haven't closed any deals. We do have one willing fella that we're negotiating with now, and that one will be big if we get it."

Stay tuned.

Justin Chapman is a freelance writer for the Pasadena Weekly. He attends Pasadena City College and represents census tract 4602 on the Altadena Town Council. He is the chairman of the council's Education Committee.


Many people and organizations fight for our foothills. Together, these partnerships wield more power than any individual or organization could by itself. But your help and participation is still needed and appreciated.

"If more people would support the AFC, we could actually buy off some of this land that is very critical at the urban interface," said Zack. "People have to understand the importance of water conservation and how the watershed works. It's very helpful when groups like Altadena Heritage and the AFC support educational projects like the film and the pocket park because it gets the message out. Conservation is the biggest issue facing our foothills. The good news is the public supports open space."

Two times a year, the AFC needs help with brush clearance. Email Nancy Steele at to be put on their brush clearance list.

Visit the AFC at, and the Watershed Committee at As they buy more land to shield it from overdevelopment, volunteer needs will increase.

"Volunteers are the glue that holds our society together, and we gain so much from our volunteer work," Steele wrote in the AFC's latest newsletter. "I know that all of you are generous people who give of yourselves in so many ways. What did you do in 2005 that made a difference in your life and others? Who are you grateful for? Whose life made the most impact on yours in 2005? In 2005, about 65.4 million people, or 28.8 percent of the population, volunteered at some time during the year."

To help other local trail groups, contact Save the Altadena Trails ( or the Altadena Crest Trail Restoration Working Group (, which are always looking for new volunteers to help with trail cleanup and restoration. Email Chairman Robert Stachle at

Learn more about the AFC at