April 15, 2007

Wilderness bill raises storm

Big Bear Lake officials say it would hurt fire-suppression efforts

San Bernardino Sun
Joe Nelson, Staff Writer

BIG BEAR LAKE - Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Hilda Solis want to have a 6,000-plus acre patch of forest on Sugarloaf Mountain declared wilderness area.

But city, fire and water officials are fighting that effort, concerned that such a designation would thwart firefighting and forest-thinning efforts and quell the possible future expansion of a water- treatment plant near the proposed wilderness area.

The proposal by Boxer, D-Calif., and Solis, is part of their California Wild Heritage Act of 2007, introduced Feb. 6 in the House of Representatives. It aims to designate 2.4 million acres of wilderness and segments of wild and scenic rivers throughout the state and calls for, among other things, 6,336 acres of designated wilderness land on Sugarloaf Mountain and about 17,920 acres in the San Gorgonio Wilderness.

"From a fire-suppression standpoint, fire suppression efforts will be limited," said John Morley, chief of the Big Bear Lake Fire Department. "Generally, the (fire) equipment isn't allowed in a wilderness area. You're not supposed to take dozers in there. You're not supposed to take engines in there, and you're not allowed to take chain saws in there."

Approval to access a wilderness area during a wildland fire is possible, but it generally has to be approved by federal officials in Washington, Morley said.

"When you have a fire going on and are trying to get approvals from someone outside this area, I don't think it's in the best interest of public safety," Morley said.

In a prepared statement Friday, Boxer said, "Under my wilderness bill, federal officials have been given full authority to act in every way they deem necessary to prevent and extinguish fires.

"Most Californians want to see these God-given wilderness areas protected for future generations. But if this community is so united against this potential designation, I certainly will take that into account as the bill moves forward."

According to Section 102(d) of the proposed legislation, the agriculture secretary may take appropriate measures to control and prevent fire through federal, state or local agencies and jurisdictions. Such measures include the use of mechanized and motorized equipment for fire suppression, including aircraft for fire retardant and water drops.

Early last week, the Big Bear Lake City Council approved a resolution opposing the designation of the wilderness area, and will send it to Boxer's and Solis' offices, city planner Sandra Molina said.
"We'll also send it to other representatives in the Senate and (House), and we're also going to be asking the local boards to join us in opposing the designations," she said.

In 1964, Congress enacted the Wilderness Act to protect designated federal lands from being encroached upon by humans and to retain their "primeval character and influence." The act prohibits, with certain exceptions, commercial enterprises and permanent roads from being built on the land.

In the last six years, the San Bernardino Mountains have been vexed with drought and a bark-beetle infestation that have combined to destroy more than 1million trees. In October 2003, the Old Fire cut an eastward path across the mountains from Waterman Canyon to Highland, destroying hundreds of homes.

The threat of fire still weighs heavily on the minds of those living both in the mountain communities and the valleys below.

"We don't want some overlay of that land that's going to inhibit the ability for people to go and do fuels work," Morley said. "I think clearly that everybody who lives in this valley is here for a reason, and we enjoy the environment, but I think sometimes things can be done to the environment that can pose a danger to citizens in this valley, and that's what we're concerned about."