A U.S. Forest Service patrol captain stood in the middle of a canyon in Angeles National Forest and started to cry.

Alberto Ortega held back tears as he remembered a young, handicapped person sitting in a wheelchair in the middle of Big Tujunga Creek, a stone’s throw away from where Ortega stood.

“It was the first time I had seen someone in a wheelchair, mud-ified, in that creek,” Ortega said. “Someone in the creek who had a disability, enjoying the cold water for the first time. Amazing.”

Ortega wasn’t the only one letting out a little passion for the outdoors on a sunny Thursday as a pleasant breeze steadily rolled through Big Tujunga Canyon in Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains.

Field ranger Irvin Barragan smiled, tears in his eyes, as he thought back to the first time he brought his daughter to the forest and beheld the majesty of a bald eagle overhead. Stephany Rojas, a 25-year-old woman in the San Gabriel Valley Conservation Corps, beamed as she explained her passion of bringing the outdoors into the gaming world to help educate people about the beauty that exists in this mountain range.

“I want to try to create a video game, and I want to bring what I learned here in the forest and actually make it into a video game where it will educate people,” Rojas says. “The more you experience, the more you’ll actually make a game that makes those people feel like they’re there, too.”

A view of Los Angeles from Angeles National Forest, which provides L.A. County with around 33 percent of the area’s total drinking water supply.
A view of Los Angeles from Angeles National Forest, which provides L.A. County with around 33 percent of the area’s total drinking water supply.

Ortega, Barragan and Rojas were just a few of many conservationists who were present and call the Angeles National Forest home. The USFS had planned to meet with individuals from Coca-Cola, the National Forest Foundation, local media and multiple L.A.-area conservation corps in the 700,000-acre forest to see the fruits of restoration done by the Forest Service and conservation corps.

The work, which included removal of invasive plant species and trash, trail maintenance, and fuel reduction treatment (burning small areas with controlled fires to reduce the risk of high-severity wildfires) was funded largely by Coca-Cola and the NFF.

In a band of environmental conservationists, Coca-Cola is a name that sticks out. But this type of investment is nothing new for the beverage company. In recent years, Coca-Cola has poured funding into environmental restoration projects around the world in an effort to sustain communities where it operates. Last year, the company announced that the water volume replenished by the projects it funded in 2015 had officially surpassed the volume that it used to make its drinks that year.

Since 2013, the company has contributed nearly $1 million to restoration work in the Angeles, and the NFF is aiming to match that.

Stephany Rojas, 25, of the San Gabriel Valley Conservation Corps. Rojas’ ambition is to use new video game technology to create experiences for young people that make them want to be outside.
Stephany Rojas, 25, of the San Gabriel Valley Conservation Corps. Rojas’ ambition is to use new video game technology to create experiences for young people that make them want to be outside.

“Coca-Cola originally got involved in this because of water,” John Radtke, Coca-Cola’s water sustainability director, told a group of conservationists, corps members and volunteers the following day. “For instance, here in the Angeles, we funded a lot of the arundo—or giant cane—removal. And so we’re actually replenishing almost half a billion liters of water per year (the latest recorded volume is 497.9 million liters).”

The Angeles National Forest provides more than 33 percent of the drinking water for people living in Los Angeles County. The tour took place less than two weeks after California Governor Jerry Brown declared the end of the state’s six-year drought emergency. But water remains a precious commodity, and obstacles persist in the watersheds of the San Gabriel Mountains.

One of those obstacles is the arundo donax, a non-native plant species that has essentially taken over stream beds throughout Angeles National Forest ever since the 2009 Station Fire, which burned through 250 square miles of forest. Arundo is a species thought to be native to the Mediterranean Basin. It has also proved to be remarkably resilient in mountain watersheds and consumes around five times more water than native vegetation.

John Radtke overlooks the Angeles National Forest where the Coca-Cola Company had funded a lot of arundo or giant cane removal.
John Radtke, water sustainability director, Coca-Cola

“After the fire, these species moved in, they crowded out the native California species, and they just sucked up all the water,” says Rachel Smith, deputy forest supervisor in the Angeles National Forest. “Not only did they limit the ability of California species to thrive in this area, but it limited browsing material for animals around this area, and also impacted our ability to deliver safe, clean drinking water to Angelenos.”

One of the Forest Service’s goals has been to remove as many invasive plant species as possible. Since 2013, the partnership has allowed the agency and various corps to remove 131 acres of arundo and other invasive weeds, remove 2,466 bags of trash from the forest, and give fuel reduction treatment to more than 200 acres of the San Gabriel River watershed.

For Barragan, uprooting the watershed’s invasive plants are actually therapeutic.

“As I’m tearing them out, I feel like I’m tearing out a lot of issues and personal drama I have within myself,” Barragan says. “And it’s not only helping me release my stress and build myself up as a person. But I know I’m doing a great job and a good deed, because all the water goes to the greater Los Angeles area.”

The 26-year-old field ranger had his eyes on the Angeles National Forest from the time he could, well, lay eyes on them. Barragan remembers looking up at the mountains as a troubled young boy in middle school. The roof of his house was an escape, and a good one at that: the home on a street called Mountain View had a front row seat to the San Gabriel show. He wanted to get up there somehow.

Years later, when he had achieved that dream by becoming a member of the San Gabriel Valley Conservation Corps, he and his colleagues climbed over a mountain ridge to get a view of the sprawling city below. Life had changed, and Barragan quite literally had a new perspective.

“All my childhood memories came back,” he said.

Barragan’s perspective will change again very soon. After a year-long gig as a field ranger, Barragan will ship off to a new firefighting job in Trinity-Shasta National Forest in northern California in just a few weeks. He hopes to come back to his “home forest” for good one day.

But no matter where he goes, he probably won’t forget his daughter’s words when she saw that eagle.

“It’s so beautiful.”