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Nature Next Door: Protecting Southern California's Four National Forests

San Diego Weekly Reader, July 23, 2008

Way Too Many People Live Out Here
By Geoff Bouvier

A lawsuit was filed in March of this year by five environmental groups — including the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club — stating that overarching land-management plans prepared by the U.S. Forest Service in 2005 do little to protect federally listed species and critical habitat from harm. The suit involves all four national forests in Southern California, including the Cleveland National Forest in San Diego County.

Forest Service officials, sick of being vilified, would rather see compromise.

Meet the New Development…

Most of the countryside north of Ramona is still rugged and beautiful. Vaulting hills pull the view up toward the blue sky, wide valleys pull the view out toward the distant horizon, and a litter of boulders pops up periodically among the pervasive ground-covering green. Whole vistas in this scenic area remain almost untouched by human hands.

But then...

Just outside downtown Ramona, a mile or two after Magnolia Avenue turns into Black Canyon Road, you turn left onto Stokes Road and head up into Rolling Hills Estates.

Glistening white plastic fences and streaming yellow pennants herald the arrival of the “royal” subdivision: the development of a new place for people to come and live in huge houses close to untouched mother nature.

“We’re in a subdivision that is one of the best and worst examples of how development is unfortunately occurring next to the Cleveland National Forest,” says David Hogan, 38, unfolding his lanky frame from the driver’s seat of his truck and surveying the wide scene through sunglasses. Hogan is the conservation manager for the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help “those who come after us to inherit a world where the wild is still alive.”

Well over half of Rolling Hills Estates isn’t built yet. A few finished, lived-in houses stand next to a few finished, vacant ones, next to half-finished construction sites, next to cleared empty lots, next to areas where lots will presumably be. Much of the land of these estates is just exposed soil that’s eroding.

“Development is going to occur, obviously, and in some areas it’s going to be inevitable,” Hogan says, sounding like a teacher. “But it can be done in a way — especially when you’re at the edge of these precious natural lands — that don’t spill the impacts of development into the national forest.”

Hogan’s tone changes.

“Here, there’s this very arrogant spillover of impacts into the forest,” he says. He sweeps his huge hand across the landscape with a motion that seems to encompass both that landscape and his own disgust. “The lots are bulldozed right up to the forest boundary. Which then implies that there’s an expectation that the national forest has to manage the shrublands that are right next to it to prevent fire risk for the people that move here, instead of the developer or future residents taking responsibility for protecting homes and managing vegetation on their own property.”

Rolling Hills Estates is situated along a paved road cut up into and over a hillside. At the end of the road, at the top of the hill, two empty lots overlook a vast expanse of shrubland. From there, it’s easy to see the differences between healthy native chaparral and chaparral that has burned recently and chaparral that burned a long time ago. The healthy chaparral is dark green, tall, and bushy; the recent burn is light green, short, and has black spindles sticking up out of it. Interspersed are dead gray branches with healthy bushes growing out of them, the result of a fire back in the mid ’90s.

The Witch Fire burned through here last October. It started 15 miles to the east, and intense winds pushed it through this area within a few hours.

“This illustrates a major concern, which is unnaturally frequent fire in the national forest,” Hogan says.

The landscape looks like an advertisement for fire, telling prospective home builders, You’re next.

Hogan’s eyes are hidden behind his sunglasses. He half chuckles and half shakes his head. “This is an extraordinarily dangerous place to live, when it comes to fire risk,” he says.

Hogan reaches into the truck and grabs a bottle of water. It’s a hot April day, close to 90 degrees. Hogan stands a full 6’5”, but he never played basketball. “I’m an enviro-geek, not a sports guy,” he laughs. His height and long limbs explain why an enviro-geek would drive a Toyota Tundra truck. “It’s the first car I’ve ever fit into,” he says. He adds, guiltily, “But that doesn’t make it good for the environment.”

Hogan grew up in Solana Beach and has been engaged in endangered-species advocacy and conservation work since he was 17. Nowadays, one of his major concerns is protecting what is probably San Diego County’s most valuable patch of landscape, the Cleveland National Forest.

One of four Southern California national forests — along with the San Bernardino, Angeles, and Los Padres — the Cleveland National Forest runs from the Mexican border up to Orange County in the Santa Ana Mountains. The Southern California counties that contain those forests are home to 12 of the 50 fastest-growing cities in the U.S., and 60 of the nation’s 250 largest cities are located within a two-hour drive of most parts of these four national forests. This places an enormous developmental pressure on natural resources.

Rolling Hills Estates is a poster place for the threats of urbanization on the national forest.

“The concern isn’t the homeowner who wants his 40 acres or his 180 acres or whatever,” Hogan says. “The concern is the subdivisions. This was done for profit. Somebody came out here where land was cheap, bought it, subdivided it into smaller pieces, and is now selling it off to people who may not know what they’re getting into. So the ultimate responsibility, first of all, [is] the County Board of Supervisors that approved the subdivision. They’re culpable for the harm that comes to the natural environment and the risk of putting people in harm’s way. Then you have the developers. They might be the worst villain, because they’re entirely driven by a profit motive. And then, there’s the people that move in, and often, they’re fairly oblivious. So whatever we can do to increase the education is good.”

…Same as the Old Development

“San Diego Country Estates was one of the worst development decisions of all time in San Diego, in terms of harm to nature and risk to people from wildfire,” David Hogan says hyperbolically. He’s still wearing his dark sunglasses, and we’ve driven back down through Ramona and headed south on San Vicente Road. “It’s distant from the urban core,” he says. “It sticks out like a sore thumb in the Cleveland National Forest, and its exposure to fire risk is enormous. Yet there’s thousands of people who live here.”

San Vicente Road — which turns into Ramona Oaks Road — is the only access to San Diego Country Estates. That route was gridlocked for hours with evacuees from the 2003 Cedar Fire and the 2007 Witch Fire. The residents were essentially trapped here as the fires burned around them.

“Way too many people live out here in an area that doesn’t have the resources to support them,” Hogan says. “And that’s to say nothing of fire risk and the fact that there’s only one road in and out.”

San Diego Country Estates pops up out of a nowhere of mountains and valleys. Suddenly, it’s all golf courses, tennis courts, fountains, green lawns, lush trees, thick shrubs, and large houses.

“A part of me likes to think that this is the bad planning of the past,” Hogan says. “But it’s not true. Right now, the City of Santee is pressing forward with its approval for a massive new subdivision called Fanita Ranch, and it’ll be exactly the same situation as this, surrounded by public lands. So nobody’s learned their lessons from this.”

Because San Diego Country Estates is here — and it was built back in the 1970s — the forest service is compelled to subject the forest to fuels-reduction activities nearby. “There’s a din from the County Board of Supervisors,” says Hogan, “especially when there’s fires, that the forest service isn’t doing enough to get rid of all of that brush. But ‘brush’ is a pejorative term. And the brush that they’re referring to is an intensely valuable native ecosystem called ‘chaparral and coastal sage scrub’ that in turn provides incredible value not just for wildlife and plants but for people. These shrublands are what prevent all the hills from washing down into our reservoirs and water supplies.”

Hogan, who often seems to mint phrases that sound as though they would work as bumper stickers, then says, “The brush is treated as public enemy number one. But the real enemy is bad land-use planning.”

San Diego Country Estates winds up San Vicente Road and branches off onto a series of arteries, all of which run into the mountains and then become dead ends. Ironically, many of the roads here are named for the wilderness that was bulldozed so that the roads could be built: Ramona Oaks, Thornbush, Sage Hill.

“When they name their roads, I would love to see the developers of these subdivisions be honest for once,” Hogan says. He parks his truck along a dead end. “Ugly Stucco Home Way. More Purple Iceplant Drive.”

Out at the end of Ramona Oaks Road, the mountains of the Cleveland National Forest recede beneath a blue sky and blazing sun. There’s almost no sound out here, except for the wind across your ears.

To walk out into the scrubland, Hogan takes along a telescoping metal walking stick. “For rattlesnakes,” he says. “To let them know you’re coming.”

This area at the end of the last road of San Diego Country Estates burned in the Cedar Fire but has recovered beautifully. In most places, bright greens have taken over the grays and the blacks. Cuyamaca Peak and Julian Peak are visible in the distance, with Eagle Peak looming front and center.

Hogan explains that the chaparral ecosystem actually benefits from fires, but only from fires that start up infrequently. Before humankind, the only way for fire to start in the wild was a lightning strike. It may have been a hundred years between burns in a wilderness area, plenty of time for the place to become robust and established.

But now we have power lines that fall in high winds, cigarette butts flying out of car windows, kids playing with matches, hikers lighting campfires, and on and on.

When these places burn every few years, the plants that replace the old growth are usually exotic weeds and grasses that aren’t indigenous — though they do grow more easily than the native plants. These plants don’t play a part in the natural order of wildlife in Southern California. This shifting of ecosystems is called “type conversion.”

“The forest service is actually pursuing type conversion here,” Hogan says incredulously. “They have a project called the San Vicente Community Defense Zone, and they want to do heavy-handed vegetation treatment here to protect these houses from fires. Now, it’s really important to do vegetation management right near where people live, but this is a very poorly designed project that’s not right at the edge of where people live. It’s out in the forest, where it provides very few values for protecting people, and it does tremendous harm to nature.”

Hogan says a big part of what the Center for Biological Diversity is doing now is trying to educate people about creating a narrow defense zone around where they live and leaving the rest of the shrublands alone.

“We don’t know whether these hillsides will ever recover,” Hogan says, again waving his very large hand across the range of all that can be seen. “Those hills have burned twice in the last 4 years, and the hillside that we’re on has burned six or seven times in the last 50 years. And that’s just too much.”

The abutting juxtapositions of San Diego Country Estates and the natural landscape that surround it are striking. A litter of man-made colors and shapes — rectangular oranges and metallic corners — stand among the rounded gray rocks and rolling green contours.

“It seems like the hands of the forest service are tied,” Hogan commiserates. He’s trying to understand the motivations of the government agency that’s supposed to protect the forest but so often seems to put it into harm’s way. “It’s like someone’s telling the local forest service representatives not to rock the boat on certain issues. Or, more subtly, maybe there’s a kind of understanding, where, if you want to get promoted and work your way up through the ranks, then you don’t do anything to cause the board of supervisors to send a letter to Washington, to your bosses, trashing you.”

But the “Bad Guys” Aren’t Really Bad Guys

“Everybody wants their piece of the forest,” says Will Metz, his eyebrows raised. Metz is the forest supervisor for the Cleveland National Forest. “Whether it’s power-transmission lines, new highway systems, aqueducts for water transmission, or mountain biking, or off-road vehicles. And something that I found out recently was that 26 percent of California’s registered off-road vehicle use is here in San Diego County. And 10 million people live within an hour of the Cleveland National Forest. Amazing impacts. And, of course, everybody wants a piece.”

Ever since he earned a forestry degree at Humboldt State, Metz, who is 52, has worked in forest services all over the country. He’s held his current post for almost a year.

So what does he think? Are the hands of the forest service tied?

Metz barely blinks. “Everybody likes to talk about ‘Oh, our budget’s going down, we don’t have the capacity to do our job on the landscape anymore, we can’t fill these vacancies because we don’t have the budget, we can’t accomplish this work because of the budget,’ but I’m a guy who likes my cup half full.” He sits back on a sofa in his office and crosses his legs. “I take what I get and optimize it, maximize it the best that I can. Sure, our budgets have been showing a declining trend, but overall, I’d say we’re a fairly healthy forest.”

What about the scientists who work for the forest service? Do they maybe toe the company line sometimes instead of thinking about what’s best for the environment?

Metz adamantly rejects this notion. “They are the stakeholders of their specific resource,” he says of the scientists who work for him. “It’s in their best interest to make sure that the forest is sustainable and that we’re not doing irreparable damage.”

Metz has been sitting on the sofa in his office next to Brian Harris, the public affairs officer for the Cleveland. Harris, who has been with the forest service for over 25 years, has been silent up to this point. But he now feels compelled to take Metz’s words one step further.

“We could pull anybody in here right now, like our wildlife biologist, and she is unflexing in her desire to do the right thing for the wildlife,” Harris says. “Now, she also knows that we are a multiple-use agency, and maybe sometimes she’s not going to get everything that she wants. But that’s what we are. We’re the forest service. And sometimes if there’s a biologist that doesn’t like that, then they usually won’t stay with us for very long. Because it is our job to be a multiple-use agency. But, man, it would be hard to take any fisheries person, for example, and convince them that what they’re telling us is not the right thing and they should just roll over and play dead.” Harris laughs. “That just doesn’t happen.”

As Harris talks, Metz nods. The two men both have quiet speaking voices, and both give off an air of calm.

“I recognize that this is an incredible natural resource that we have in our backyard,” Metz says. He uncrosses his legs, puts his hands together, and leans forward on the sofa. “And a lot of this sense of value comes from the fact that shortly after I arrived, we had the fires. And we had to close large portions of the forest for months. It was like putting a stake through my heart. They’re public lands. I expect them to be open.”

The Cleveland National Forest was established on July 1, 1908, so this is the forest’s centennial year. It covers 437,000 acres — rather small compared to other national forests. The Tongass National Forest in the southeast, for instance, fills 17 million acres. Yet the Cleveland is divided into three ranger districts, the Tribuco, the Palomar, and the Descanso, which means that it gets more attention than most forests, with three full staffs taking care of things instead of one. The workforce includes over 300 firefighters and 243 full-time employees.

Just outside of Metz’s office, in the main foyer of the Cleveland National Forest office on Rancho Bernardo Road, a forest mural is painted on one wall. Dozens of maps and smaller photos of trees and animals fill the space. Opposite the mural, dominating the wall above a few chairs, is a framed photograph of the boss himself — the man who tried to gut the Endangered Species Act, and the man who expedited all sorts of projects through sensitive lands without environmental review — a broadly smiling George W. Bush.

When Metz is asked, point blank, “What’s it like working for the worst environmental president in history?” he and Harris share a long, nervous laugh. Finally, Metz says, “I don’t know if that’s a fact.” And then he stops smiling altogether. He repeats, more sincerely, “I don’t know if that’s a fact.”

Into the (Less and Less) Wild

“This is Cedar Creek,” David Hogan says.

Leaving San Diego Country Estates, Hogan has driven almost 40 miles — up Highway 78 to Pine Hills Road toward Julian, then right on Eagle Peak Road, then another right on Boulder Creek Road — but as the crow flies, he’s now standing only 5 miles or so from San Diego Country Estates.

Cedar Creek babbles in the background. Goldfinches chirp and flit through the oaks overhead. Sunlight streams down among the leaves. Boulder Creek Road is 1 1/2 lanes wide, at most, and no cars have passed Hogan’s truck. It’s just nature, nature all around.

“This is definitely one of the most remote areas of the county,” Hogan says.

Cedar Creek is still recovering from the Cedar Fire. Parts of the landscape show blackened char among the lush green. Eagle Peak Road was where Sergio Martinez parked his car before getting lost and starting the initial signal fire that subsequently burned out of control.

“It’s not like anyone’s mining out here,” Hogan says. “It’s not like anyone needs to build a reservoir here. The reason it’s so pristine is no one’s ever found a reason to mess it up. And yet, for whatever reason, for politics, the forest service won’t give it the most protected designation, the wilderness designation. They’ve in fact fought it tooth and nail.”

In the forest service’s land-management plan, Cedar Creek is designated as “backcountry, nonmotorized.”

“This means that the forest service can still do whatever they want with it,” Hogan says, “but it’s on their terms. The first thing they think of is ‘We’ll try to keep it that way.’ But if, say, SDG&E wants to build power lines through there, we can’t stop them, because it’s not designated wilderness. And in fact, that’s where the Sunrise Powerlink is supposed to go, through the roadless area to the south of us.”

What Hogan and other environmentalists would prefer, regarding an area this pristine, is that it be locked up. “And throw that key away,” Hogan says. “Because there’s so few places left like this.”

Leaving Cedar Creek and heading south, Boulder Creek Road is no longer paved. Clouds of dust fly up around Hogan’s truck and hang in the air. There’s no signal on your cell phone out here. For 15 miles, the dirt road winds through hills and trees with no signs of people anywhere. Top speed: 35 miles per hour.

The open air has turned to incense, the smell of coastal sage.

“In the late ’70s and early ’80s, when I was a kid, pretty much everything east of I-5 used to look like this.” Hogan sighs and shakes his head. “You had towns like Poway and Escondido, Temecula and San Marcos, but they were small, consolidated footprints. They weren’t the sprawl that we see today.”

Crossing Boulder Creek, Hogan stops to say that this is yet another area that has been recommended for, and denied, wilderness designation.

In the shade by the creek, Hogan removes his sunglasses for the first time all day, and the whole character of his face changes. His blue-green eyes are filled with a gentle sadness and the sincerity you might associate with a self-proclaimed “enviro-geek.” But without the sunglasses, you’re more apt to notice that although Hogan sports a young man’s haircut — short, yet wavy on top — some of that hair has begun to turn gray.

“San Diegans are fortunate to have a national forest like the Cleveland that acts as a sort of wall against the evils of urban development,” Hogan says. Nearby Boulder Creek bubbles, as if in agreement. “But that doesn’t mean we can let our guards down. As more and more development is undertaken, more and more conservation attention is needed.”

Back inside his truck, with his sunglasses back in place, Hogan’s thinking focuses on the big picture.

“Our biggest complaint,” he says, “with the way the Cleveland National Forest is being run, is that they’re still doing things that are very harmful for endangered species, and they just don’t emphasize proactive management to bring species back from the brink of extinction.”

The (Latest) Lawsuit: The Plaintiffs

“The forest service went through this whole land-management plan,” David Hogan says. “We’re suing over the noncompliance with the Endangered Species Act within that plan. What we’re saying is that they never really made sure that when they crafted the plan they were fully protecting endangered species and critical habitats as required by law.”

Bill Corcoran is the senior regional representative for the Los Angeles Field Office of the Sierra Club. Corcoran’s been with the club since 1984.

The Sierra Club, founded in 1892, is the nation’s oldest, largest grassroots environmental organization. Today, the club has over 700,000 members nationwide, with over 15,000 of those in San Diego County.

“In our opinion,” Corcoran says over the telephone, sounding incredulous, “the forest service had an amazing opportunity to step up to the plate and to create a vision for the forest that the public was asking them for, which was, we want our wildlife heritage protected and restored, and we want to have better opportunities for nonmotorized recreation than you are providing us with, and we want to see a plan from you about how we’re going to get there.”

Instead, the forest service basically said, “Okay, we’ll look at each thing later as it comes up.”

Because the Cleveland is divided up into what amounts to little islands of forest spread countywide, it faces the unique challenge of maintaining habitat linkages among the parts of the forest, as well as dealing with encroachment from adjacent development. At least 116 species classified as sensitive, of concern, or at risk, including more than 25 endangered or threatened species, live within the boundaries of the Cleveland. These include the arroyo toad, Quino checkerspot butterfly, Tecate cypress, San Diego thornmint, and creeping sage. The forest has become the last area holding these species, since we’ve built on all the other land.

“I’ve already said the plans are vague,” Corcoran says, “and they’re weak, and they don’t give guidance to local managers. But they also have this tendency — because they don’t set broad goals to work toward, with standards and guidelines — they fall into the trap of saying, ‘Well, if bad things happen in the forest, we will monitor that and fix it.’ But that fix-it model fails Southern Californians who value the forest because their forests can’t afford any more damage.”

So what should a land-management plan do instead?

“Typically,” Corcoran says, “in the past, you would have a management plan that set specific outcome goals for a place or a species, and that would have strict standards and guidelines for how the agency was going to meet those goals. For example, take the checkerspot butterfly. You would have a long-term plan and specific guidelines for how to protect the butterfly and its habitat, and the public would understand what the forest service was committing to do. In this case, we have a very vague document that just talks in general ways about outcomes for the forest.”

Leading into the revision process for the forest’s current land-management plan, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club drafted up suggestions for the forest service to follow. Essentially, they did a lot of the forest service’s work for them. Or so they thought.

Instead, the forest service completely ignored the report and carried forward its abstract overview rather than address the minute specificities and suggestions drawn up by concerned environmentalists. The revisions were finalized in 2005.

“They changed the whole definition of what a land-management plan is,” Corcoran says. “Now, it’s just a broad statement of intention that pushes all of the analysis down to a very local and specific level, which in and of itself is not bad. But if, in its analysis of its overall plan, the forest service can’t give the public a clear picture of how this management plan — which is really the blueprint for how they’re going to manage the forest — if they can’t credibly and clearly explain what the forest service is specifically hoping to achieve forest-wide, it’s difficult to understand the purpose of such a plan.”

It’s almost like having a construction site that comes under scrutiny because the developers are saying that they’re going to use asbestos in the ceilings and lead in the pipes and no insulation on the wires; and so, to make amends, the developers draw up a new blueprint that says the ceilings and pipes and wiring will be handled in the best way possible by the most qualified subcontractors at the appropriate time, and then, if something goes wrong, they’ll fix it. It doesn’t say they won’t use hazardous materials but does make them less culpable if the materials they do use end up hurting anyone.

“What we’re trying to do with the lawsuit,” adds Hogan, “since they refused when we were proactive and asking nicely, is we’re trying to get them to listen to us.”

The (Latest) Lawsuit: The Defendants

“I see a lot of money being spent on lawsuits,” Brian Harris says, grimacing noticeably. The U.S. Forest Service faces multiple lawsuits yearly from various environmental groups. “But, in reality, if we all just came together as a big happy group and focused the money to do things on the ground, things would work out a lot better.”

Will Metz agrees.

“It’s amazing what some collaboration will do, what some creative thinking will do.” Metz nods, pursing his lips. “We have a lot of tools in our toolbox, so to speak. If it’s the right thing to do, to close an area to protect a species, then I’ll do that. But I also try to find other ways around that before I just close the door. Because once the door’s closed, it’s hard to open back up.”

Interesting that Metz uses the same metaphor as Hogan, where the wilderness is a kind of treasure chest or chamber of wonders that has a protective padlock on it. But Hogan wants the padlock permanently closed, and Metz emphasizes the need at least to keep the keys on hand.

“Not all acres of the national forest are created equally,” Metz says.

Harris, for his part, outlines an important distinction that centers on the word “sensitive,” stressing that this word needs to be interpreted and defined on a case-by-case basis. “A lot of people in the environmental community seem to feel that the entire forest is sensitive,” Harris says. “But we need to be a little more specific than that. If we’re talking about a specific habitat for a specific animal or plant, and the sensitivity of that area to a certain kind of use, then that’s one thing. But we have to be careful about the word ‘sensitive’ in a larger context. Because, just how sensitive is an area, and sensitive to what?”

So everyone seems to be saying the same thing: specificity is needed. But what about the generalization in the current land-management plan?

“Our forest plans are planning documents,” Metz says. “They’re supposed to be strategic in nature — or maybe not strategic, but at least long-range. I was involved in the writing of these plans very early on. And I’m pretty impressed with them. Now, we’ve always struggled with standards and guidelines; for example, ‘You will make sure that no more than 2.5 cubic meters of the soil...’ You know, stuff like that. But those are very hard standards, in my opinion, to deal with. Because they’re not addressing what the resource is actually doing out there. And so the plan is an umbrella, telling us where we need to focus our priorities. Now, I can understand why people say the land-management plan is too general and not specific enough. But there’s a reason for that. It provides more flexibility with what we do out on the land and how we manage the land, rather than constrain us. Every acre is different. And having standards that address each acre almost on the same playing field is a little confining.”

Even without all the specificity, the current land-management plan for the Cleveland National Forest covers three volumes and hundreds of pages. A legally binding and publicly available document, it’s the constitution for the forest service.

But Metz and Harris and the forest service maintain that for the plan to be effective, its generality and flexibility are essential. “We’re learning stuff all the time,” Harris says, “and when it comes to the research side of things, and they come to us and they tell us something new, the last thing we want to do is have to wait 10 or 15 years to change our plans on the ground. We need to have that flexibility to incorporate that new information into that site-specific project.”

Other Threats: Cows and Roads

Another problem facing the forest, and cited by David Hogan, is cattle grazing.

“You wouldn’t think there are that many cattle in San Diego County, but it doesn’t take that many to cause a lot of harm,” Hogan says.

“There’s so little water to begin with and so little lush vegetation. They muck up streams, degrade water quality for native fish, and tear up stream banks. So, unfortunately, the places the cows tend to congregate — the riparian areas — are also the places that support the greatest number of endangered species.”

Hogan argues that ideally there shouldn’t be any cows here. San Diego County is the wrong environment for a creature that thrives in the temperate zones of Europe and the eastern United States.

“But there are also ways to minimize harm to riparian areas,” Hogan offers, by way of compromise. “You can fence cows out of those areas. But that’s expensive, and fences do a lot of damage, too.”

He’s parked his truck again in a slanting valley a few miles south of Boulder Creek, about halfway from Julian to Descanso, in the western shadow of Cuyamaca Peak, which, at 6512 feet, is the tallest peak in the county. On the clearest of days, from here you can just see the ocean in the far, far distance. The dust from Hogan’s truck tires slowly dissipates into the blue air.

“A couple years ago,” Hogan says, “the forest service did a travel-management analysis, where they figured out where all the roads are on the national forest, whether they’re needed, and which roads are for what.” He sips at a bottle of cool water. “In the United States, a lot of the national forests, unlike the Cleveland, are still wide open to vehicle use. If you’re able to drive there, you can go there. But in the Cleveland, back in the 1980s, the forest was closed to vehicle travel except on designated roads or trails.”

The forest service is going through a process right now where it’s revisiting those decisions from the ’80s. Says Hogan, “They’re not going to open up the forest, but they’re actually considering — instead of closing dozens of miles of harmful roads that are either unused or serve very little purpose other than to erode sediments downstream or to harm endangered species’ habitat — they’re considering adding more roads to the system.”

Many of these unofficial roads, which are generally expensive and difficult to maintain because of the topography of the area, were made illegally, over time, by forest users driving into places where they should have walked. Now the forest service is considering officially adding these roads to its designated route system. “It’s really the wrong way to go,” Hogan says. “They should be closing as many roads as possible instead.”

But Will Metz has a full response ready for Hogan’s concerns. “Long before I arrived at the Cleveland,” Metz says, “they had a system of off-road vehicle routes identified, but, over time, users obviously are always wanting to explore further and further, and new trails and routes were created. So, through our route-designation process, we’ve identified which of those user-created trails are legitimate, from the standpoint that they provide unique recreational experiences, they contribute to maybe a loop system, and it makes sense that they be incorporated into the overall program. The biggest issue, of course, is whether these user-created routes are creating resource impacts. For example, arroyo toad habitat. And in some cases, yes. But for those areas we’re going through the NEPA process, the National Environmental Policy Act. We’re doing environmental analysis. And through that process, we can identify areas of concern. And then the management question becomes, do we close those areas? Or can we mitigate those potential impacts in some way. For example, seasonal closures, or limited operating periods, or rerouting parts of a route. So there’s a lot of mitigations that are at play here.”

And one of the routes for mitigation, of course, is the latest lawsuit.

“My best hope, concerning the lawsuit, is that the forest service will see the light and we’ll at least reach a compromise on all the issues,” Hogan says. “Our preference would be to negotiate a settlement, where we can protect endangered species and their habitats while letting people enjoy the forest. But if that doesn’t happen, then we’re prepared to fight it out.”

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton