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New drilling a risk to Los Padres

Santa Barbara News-Press 12 June 2005

Jeff Kuyper

Los Padres National Forest.

We are fortunate to have a national forest right here in our own backyard. The Los Padres National Forest forms the backdrop of just about every local community here, and we all benefit from the clean water, wild landscapes and recreation opportunities provided by these magnificent lands.

These are public lands, to be managed for the public's benefit. Increasingly, though, these lands are improperly managed for the benefit of big corporations and special interests that want to plunder our forest resources.

Never before have our national forests been so threatened by development, resource extraction and a hostile administration.

For example, the Forest Service -- the federal agency in charge of managing the Los Padres -- has spent the past few years analyzing whether to open up vast expanses of our national forest to oil drilling.

This month, the agency will issue its final decision, targeting more than 52,000 acres for new oil wells, pads, derricks, pipelines, roads, power lines and other infrastructure across our public lands.

The Los Padres is the only national forest in the world that supports critical habitat for the endangered California condor.

In fact, the Los Padres is so important to the survival and recovery of the condor that the federal government has spent upwards of $40 million to bring the species back from the brink of extinction.

Forty-four wild condors now command the skies above the Los Padres.

Why is the Forest Service willing to risk such an important investment of public funds for a few days' supply of low-quality crude oil that would do nothing to bring us towards renewable fuels and energy independence?

Why is the Forest Service considering new oil drilling when it can't even control the impacts caused by existing drilling?

Last year, a newly-hatched condor chick became covered in oil after his father dipped his head in a pool of oil, thinking it was water. For the past three years, several condors had pounds of trash surgically removed from their stomachs. Some have even died after ingesting zinc-plated screws and other toxic materials.

And why is the Forest Service targeting some of the most important areas of the forest for oil drilling?

Two areas targeted for drilling, north of Ojai and Fillmore, border the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, the Sespe Wilderness, and the Sespe Wild & Scenic River.

A third targeted area borders three additional wilderness areas and is in the Cuyama River watershed, which the agency itself has declared an "area of high ecological significance."

Any new oil drilling in the Los Padres would have untold consequences on our communities. We rely on these nearby wilderness areas for solitude and diverse recreation opportunities -- hiking, camping, hunting, fishing -- that would be forever scarred by the noise and blight of oil drilling.

We rely on our national forest to provide our neighborhoods with clean drinking water, which undoubtedly would face increased pollution from the cocktail of chemicals used in the oil drilling and extraction process.

Most importantly, we rely on our public land management agencies, like the Forest Service, to make the right decisions when it comes to how our public lands are used.

Increasingly, however, this agency is making decisions that are directly against the public's interest.

Just last month, the current administration released its final plans to overturn the popular Roadless Area Conservation Rule.

Originally, this regulation protected our nation's pristine, roadless areas from most road building associated with industrial development, such as oil drilling, mining, logging and other resource extraction. It contained exemptions for access to private property, public health and safety, and fire management.

It was truly a balanced approach to public lands management.

With last month's action to overturn this rule, our national forests are now more vulnerable than ever. More than 636,000 acres in the Los Padres National Forest are now less-protected from the incursion of roads and their impacts on water quality, habitat continuity and wilderness values.

Los Padres ForestWatch formed last year in response to these increasing threats to our public lands.

We work to protect these wildlands in our own back yard, and provide tools to communities to help all of us become more involved in the management of public lands. We want to protect the forests, hills, streams, wetlands, deserts, coastal areas and wildlife of this spectacular area.

After all, these are our public lands. They belong to us, the public, not to the agencies that manage them, nor to the industries that want to plunder them.

We are working to take a stand against further oil development in our national forest, and to protect the clean water, recreation opportunities, wildlife habitat and wilderness that are valued most by our community.

The author is executive director of Los Padres ForestWatch, a nonprofit organization based in Santa Barbara working to protect public lands along California's Central Coast.