Southern California's four national forests – the Angeles, Cleveland, Los Padres, and San Bernardino — comprise a beautiful tapestry of landscapes and ecosystems that host an enormous variety of native wildlife and plants, many of them found nowhere else on Earth. Stretching across more than 3.5 million acres, the four national forests not only provide enjoyment for California residents and visitors — they also support 76 threatened and endangered species and 405 at-risk species in need special protective care. Surrounded by a sea of urban development, many Southern California plants and animals are finding the four national forests to be their last refuge.
Yet the true value of the national forests has long gone unrecognized by the U.S. Forest Service. Grazing, oil and gas drilling, logging, road construction, transmission lines, off-road vehicle use and poor fire-management activities are just a few of the threats the Forest Service has not only failed to address but often encouraged.
The agency's long-awaited land-management plans for the forests, released in 2005 and outlining management goals and strategies for the next 10 to 15 years, were meant to guide decisions on everything from protecting plants and wildlife and providing recreational opportunities to deciding where development and off-road vehicle trails can be placed. But these plans were fundamentally flawed, ultimately failing to protect important forest natural values.
Thanks to work by the Center and allies, the flawed Southern California forest management plans have been halted in court and a judge has called for measures to better protect more than 40 imperiled species on the forests.
The Center began our campaign to protect the four Southern California national forests in 1998, when we filed a lawsuit that resulted in a landmark settlement requiring the Forest Service to update its forest management plans for the good of imperiled species. Between 2001 and 2005, we and our partners watched over Forest Service revisions to the management plans and pressed for stronger environmental protections, including the development of a comprehensive, scientifically based conservation alternative outlining visionary standards and guidelines for management that would continue to provide world-class recreational opportunities while offering new ways to protect the forests' rich array of flora and fauna. Our Conservation Alternative became Alternative 6 in the Forest Service's environmental impact statement for the management plans, and in May 2005, we submitted a report identifying the forests' biodiversity hotspots, recommending that these unique areas be designated “critical biological zones” with high levels of protection.
Since the Forest Service's management plans fell far short of addressing the problems facing the forests, the Center led an appeal of the plans in 2006, and despite the Forest Service's resistance, a judge ordered that the agency accept and review our appeal. The appeal was rejected in 2008 in a move destined to harm all four forests — but we filed suit against the Forest Service in August 2008 on behalf of the forests' wildlife and ecosystems. On September 30, 2009, a federal district court judge ruled that the management plans didn't do enough to protect the forests' wildest areas — 974,000 acres of roadless land — from destruction related to road building and other development.
In December 2010, we and our allies reached a comprehensive settlement agreement with the Forest Service, state of California and off-road vehicle users regarding the appropriate remedy in our successful challenge to the 2005 revised forest plans. Under our agreement, the Forest Service will reconsider a number of additional roadless areas in the four forests as recommended wilderness, which would provide protection until Congress takes action to permanently protect these areas as wilderness. The parties to the agreement also agreed to work together to identify roads and trails that are degrading roadless areas, which the Forest Service will prioritize for decommissioning and restoration. And while the Forest Service reconsiders the revised forest plans, it will protect all roadless areas on these four national forests from harmful activities, including those that could prevent them from being recommended as wilderness in the future.
The Center also led a lawsuit against the Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service over their failure to protect federally listed species and designated critical habitat on these four national forests. The suit challenged the validity of “biological opinions” on the revised forest plans, which were prepared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service. These documents acknowledge that the revised forest plans will result in negative impacts to many threatened and endangered species that reside on the four forests, but fail to identify the actual extent of these impacts or provide meaningful ways to reduce them — as the Endangered Species Act (and common sense) require. In June 2009, in response to our lawsuit, a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service had violated the Endangered Species Act in preparing the biological opinions. Two years later the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service were ordered to increase protections more than 40 imperiled plants and animals on these forests.
Through our campaign, we're determined to bring national forest management into the 21st century to ensure that it follows scientific recommendations to preserve biodiversity and opportunities for quiet human recreation. Our main goals in moving forward include preparing a scientific report and reaching out to the public on vegetation management for fire, advocating for old-growth forests and chaparral, opposing destructive oil and gas development, and working to protect all the threatened and endangered species that call these forests home.