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Blueprints for forests released


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  • Blueprints for forests released

    INLAND: Two areas don't get the wilderness designation proposed by environmentalists.

    12:50 AM PDT on Saturday, September 24, 2005

    By JENNIFER BOWLES and IMRAN GHORI / The Press-Enterprise

    The U.S. Forest Service on Friday released final blueprints for governing Southern California forests over the next 15 years, announcing the agency dropped two key Inland wilderness proposals sought by environmentalists.

    Opponents said a wilderness area south of Big Bear City could have hindered firefighting ability in an area still studded with dead trees, and in the Cleveland National Forest east of Lake Elsinore, a wilderness designation could have hampered plans for a proposed hydroelectric plant.

    Also dropped from the agency's earlier draft plan was a ban on fixed anchors in the popular rock-climbing areas near Idyllwild until a national policy is developed on the controversial issue, said Ruth Wenstrom, a forest spokeswoman.

    2004 / The Press-Enterprise
    Despite heavy rains and snow last winter, Big Bear City Fire Chief Dana Van Leuven says the Big Bear area remains at risk.

    As in Joshua Tree National Park, such anchors can be permanent marks on the rock face. But climbers say they are key to safety.

    The sweeping forest plan seeks to balance the often competing interests in the heavily used forests. Some 8 million visitors each year bike, hike, off-road, horseback ride, fish, camp and picnic in the San Bernardino, Cleveland, Angeles and Los Padres national forests that stretch over 3.7 million acres. The San Bernardino forest is also home to more than 100,000 people from Idyllwild to Lake Arrowhead.

    The new plan opens about 25 percent of roadless areas to off-roading but only on a limited number of designated trails, forest officials said.

    Monica Bond, a wildlife biologist with the Joshua Tree-based Center for Biological Diversity, said the plan fails to protect endangered species from new threats by allowing more off-roading and development projects.

    "Holistically, we're going to see further degradation of the forest," she said.

    Wilderness designations -- which are ultimately approved by Congress on recommendations by local forest officials -- are considered the nation's highest form of protection.

    But the forest officials said a wilderness area in the Sugarloaf Mountain area south of Big Bear City would have hampered firefighting and thinning projects because the designation would have banned bulldozers and other mechanized equipment.

    "If they found that it would be in the best interest of public safety to eliminate it, I think that's a good move in the right direction," said Big Bear City Fire Chief Dana Van Leuven.

    The Big Bear area escaped the devastating wildfires of 2003 but remains at risk despite the heavy rain and snow this past winter.

    "All the dead component from years of drought is still there," Van Leuven said. "And we have bumper crops of light, flashy fuels that can carry the fire rapidly."

    Instead, the Forest Service is giving the Sugarloaf area a restricted designation which will offer some level of protection to the land but allow firefighting ability, Wenstrom said.

    Joyce Burk, chairwoman of the Sierra Club's Southern California forest committee, said she was disappointed by the Sugarloaf decision. She said a wilderness designation would have protected the upper watershed of the Santa Ana River, a major drinking supply, and habitat for the rare California spotted owl.

    In the Cleveland, a wilderness proposal was dropped that would have included Morrell Canyon, where Elsinore Valley Municipal Water District is planning a hydroelectric power plant.

    "A preliminary review of (the forest plan), it tells us it's not going to impact our project at all," said Greg Morrison, district spokesman.

    Environmentalists said the move essentially will block access to a popular hiking area by flooding the canyon.

    "If they flood this canyon, access to wilderness will be lost forever," said Bill Corcoran with the Sierra Club.

    Morrison said the water district had been working with Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, to reverse the wilderness proposal for the last 18 months.

    In a letter to forest officials signed by Issa, Reps. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, and Mary Bono, R-Palm Springs, and others, they criticized the earlier draft plan for limiting energy projects, calling it a dramatic reversal from previous plans.

    They asked that the plan be changed to specifically allow for hydroelectric power generation and storage and defer identification of new wilderness areas.

    Mike Hilberath, a Mission Viejo resident and vice president of the Elsinore Hang Gliding Association, said he fears the forest plan will make it easier for the water district to put up power lines connecting to the hydro plant two-thirds up the ridge in the path of hang gliders. He said it would be suicidal for hang gliders to attempt to navigate through them.

    "If they're allowed to put in the lines where they prefer to put them because it's cheapest for them, then hang gliding (in the Cleveland National Forest) would just cease to exist," he said.
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