June 5, 2007

Boxer yields to opposition

Land near Sugarloaf will not be claimed as wilderness area

San Bernardino Sun

Joe Nelson, Staff Writer

BIG BEAR LAKE - Facing opposition from city and fire officials, Sen. Barbara Boxer, has decided against designating 6,336 acres of land near Sugarloaf a wilderness area.

As part of their California Wild Heritage Act of 2007, Boxer and Rep. Hilda Solis, both state Democrats, planned to designate as wilderness area the patch of land in Big Bear Lake and 17,920 acres in the San Gorgonio Wilderness. The designations would pose certain restrictions to the areas and prevent roads and commercial enterprises from being built.

But city and fire officials opposed the Sugarloaf area wilderness designation, concerned it would thwart firefighters' ability to access the area should a wildfire erupt.

"We all love the environment we live in. Protecting the forest is critical, but doing so at the possible expense of lives and property because of lack of access or authority could be dangerous," Bill Jahn, mayor of Big Bear Lake, said in a written statement Monday. "We are grateful to Senator Boxer and her staff for the time they took to listen and address our community's concerns."

In April, the Big Bear Lake City Council approved a resolution opposing the designation and subsequently notified Boxer's office.

Tom Bohigian, state director for Boxer, subsequently met with city officials to hear their concerns, then reported back to Boxer.

"The senator took their concerns about fire very seriously. She decided this was the right thing to do," Bohigian said.

Last week, Bohigian informed city officials that the bill would be reintroduced in 2009, sans the Sugarloaf designation.

The original bill called for the designation of 2.4 million acres of wilderness and segments of wild and scenic rivers throughout the state. It would have allowed the secretary of agriculture to authorize federal, state and local authorities to take appropriate measures to fight wildland fires should they break out in designated wilderness areas.

Despite that provision, Big Bear Lake fire Chief John Morley said he was concerned that if firefighters were delayed from accessing the area because they had to wait for federal approval, it would jeopardize public safety.