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Plan puts out welcome mat for Los Padres

13 June 2004

Anna Davison

A new vision for Los Padres National Forest tries harder than ever to cater to the ever increasing numbers of Southland residents and visitors yearning to escape their apartments, cubicles and mortgages for some wild time -- whether it's hiking, hunting or off-road biking. That worries some conservationists, who say the draft land management plan, released last month, opens up too much of the forest to a potential stampede of visitors. "There's a real imbalance," said Bill Corcoran, a regional representative for the Sierra Club. "The Forest Service is leaving the door open for years and years of potential development and harmful impacts."

The draft plan doesn't directly address two of the most troubling issues for forest users: the future of the Adventure Pass -- the $5-a-day fee -- and the possibility of more oil and gas leasing in the forest. The former is an administrative decision and the latter will be contemplated in a separate study, due for release this summer.

But forest users and other interest groups have found plenty to fret about in this proposal.

Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, said in an e-mail that the plan "errs more on the side of recreation than conservation, when the Forest Service should have struck a delicate balance between the two."

A representative for Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Simi Valley, did not respond to a request for comment.

The Sierra Club sees the plan, which has been several years in the making, as a "huge missed opportunity" to protect more of the 1.75-million-acre forest from development, Mr. Corcoran said, by not designating more areas as wilderness -- closing them to motorized access and oil and gas development. The Forest Service is recommending that seven areas -- including La Brea, Buckhorn Creek and Mono Creek -- be designated wilderness, but that "gets about 10 percent of the job done," said Tim Allyn, associate regional representative for the Sierra Club.

"It's definitely less acreage than we were hoping for, said Jeff Kuyper, a legal analyst with the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center.

Off-road enthusiasts, though, are pleased that the draft plan leaves a chunk of acreage open to motorized recreation.

Jim Turner, a forest planner with the Forest Service, said the aim of the plan is to offer more recreational opportunities while carefully managing the potential impacts.

"We're going to try to accommodate as many uses as we possibly can, but the bottom line is we have to protect habitat and species."

"Some folks are only comfortable if we provide complete protection," Mr. Turner noted.

The new plan also places increased emphasis on managing the forest to limit catastrophic wildfires, like those that charred 750,000 acres across the Southland last year, killing 24 people. This year's fire season already got off to an ominous start with fires sweeping through thousands of acres in the Gaviota and Lake Cachuma areas, charring chunks of the forest in both instances.

Ted Adams, chairman of the Santa Barbara County Fire Safe Council, called the fire prevention provisions in the draft plan laudable.

It "shows the government's good intentions, but whether or not it can be funded is another question," he added.

Although representatives of the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Center say they understand the need to clear out excess fuel in the vicinity of vulnerable communities, they've criticized the plan for allowing increasing management in wilderness areas.

"You don't need to move into the backcountry," Mr. Allyn added.

But Mr. Turner said "in many cases the wilderness comes down very close to populated areas. We do have to consider doing fuels management in at least part of our wilderness."

This draft plan isn't intended to offer "on-the-ground" solutions, Mr. Turner said, but only to guide management over the coming few years. It also calls for increased outreach and education efforts -- particularly toward the large numbers of Latino visitors.

In developing the plan, the Forest Service came up with several alternative strategies, weighed the options, and chose the one with the greatest flexibility to respond to the increased demand for recreation.

Conservation groups, though, say the plan places too much emphasis on motorized recreation, which Mr. Corcoran described as "the single most harmful human activity on our forests."

If more off-highway trails were added, he said, it would "fragment natural areas, increase vandalism and increase fire risk."

"Rather than open up precious environmentally delicate areas to off-road vehicles, the Forest Service should promote the use of nonmechanized forms of recreation," Mrs. Capps said, adding that the service should take the plan "back to the drawing board."

Mr. Turner, though, said that even though the draft plan designates more acreage as "backcountry motorized," that doesn't necessarily mean the Forest Service will open up the areas to four-wheelers or motorcycles.

"Flexibility is the key word," he said, adding, "there are no plans to build more roads and there are no plans to build off-highway vehicle trails for that matter."

Off-road enthusiasts say they're pleased that the Forest Service is listening to them.

Jon Johnson, president of the Santa Barbara Motorcycle Club, which worked with the Forest Service to identify off-road opportunities in Los Padres, said he's happy with the provisions in the draft plan -- as a start.

"As long as they stick to our guidelines, it's fantastic. Anything less than that, as taxpayers, I think we're being taken advantage off," Mr. Johnson said.

Mr. Turner also said that by allowing more motorized access, the Forest Service will be better able to manage the forest -- particularly to minimize the impact of wildfires.

"It's for us to get in and do fire suppression and resource management," Mr. Turner said.

Mr. Corcoran, though, said he thinks the Forest Service put more thought into providing motorized access than protecting the dozens of species in the forest that are classified as either threatened or endangered by the federal government.

The strategy the Forest Service chose for the draft plan "is basically the second worst as far as species protection goes," Mr. Kuyper added.

"The best way to protect a species," Mr. Corcoran said, "is to designate more wilderness and have more backcountry."

Mr. Turner noted that the plan does propose seven more wilderness areas as well as three new "wild and scenic rivers" -- Piru, Sespe and Arroyo Seco.

Nonetheless, Mr. Corcoran described the draft plan as "just a recipe for continued management by crisis."

Forest Service representatives say that the strategy they've chosen for the draft plan could change as a result of public input. They're already held a series of open houses to help people get acquainted with the plan and may schedule more meetings before the public comment period ends in August. The American Land Rights Association is calling on the Forest Service to hold public hearings -- not just open houses -- in which people can comment and hear what their neighbors think.

The current process "is designed to avoid controversy," said Chuck Cushman, executive director of the conservative organization that calls for using public land to its full economic potential.

The association is trying to mobilize its members to speak out about the plan -- in particular to safeguard their right to graze in the forest, which he says helps manage vegetation and reduce fire risk.

The plan doesn't include decisions about the 70 active grazing allotments on Los Padres, but Mr. Cushman said the association wants to make sure its members aren't pushed out.

"It's a multiple-use concept for the forest, but some folks have a more equal share depending on how loud they shout," Mr. Cushman said. "There are folks that view the forest as their church. There are some that would like to see gates around it.

"We have to share the resource," he added.

AT A GLANCE

The draft forest plan:

  • Increases provisions for recreation including areas designated for motorized use
  • Increases provisions for fire prevention
  • Proposes seven new wilderness areas
  • Proposes three new "wild and scenic" rivers
  • Increases education and outreach measures