August 13, 2007

Governor urges stricter rules to protect wilderness areas

Ramon Mena Owens / The Press-Enterprise
Ed Pollitt, of Murrieta, prepares to hang glide near Main Divide Road in the Cleveland National Forest

The Press-Enterprise [Riverside, CA]

Gov. Schwarzenegger recently escalated a battle of words with federal officials over how to manage the remaining wilderness areas in Southern California's national forests.

In an August letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Schwarzenegger accused the federal government of not doing enough to make sure wilderness in the San Bernardino, Cleveland, Angeles and Los Padres national forests is protected from road construction.

The state and environmental groups want more restrictions on forest roads than are outlined in new forest management plans, 10- to 15-year master plans for land use in the forests. Schwarzenegger charged the federal government with not living up to promises made to the state over the past few years as the management plan was written.

This month, the U.S. Forest Service denied appeals by the state seeking to limit roads in wilderness areas to those needed for fighting fires or for accessing Indian tribal grounds or recreation areas.

The Forest Service has taken the stance that it needs the flexibility to create roads that help balance the threat of wildfires and demand for off-road vehicle activities with wilderness protection, said Matt Mathes, regional spokesman for the agency.

Similar disputes have simmered in other states when a legal challenge to federal wilderness law left states in limbo between conflicting regulations from the Bush and Clinton administrations.

California could also take this dispute to federal court, state officials said.

"Your recent denial is unacceptable and places the protection of valuable land in greater jeopardy," Schwarzenegger wrote in a letter to the secretary of agriculture. "Frankly, it is not too much to ask for the Forest Service to do the right thing and live up to its own assurances. Please take the necessary action to ensure that California's forests are safeguarded for generations to come and resolve this important issue before any more time and resources are expended. The people of California deserve nothing less."

The regional office of the U.S. Forest Service is deciding how to respond to the governor's letter, Mathes said.

The forest management plan allows officials the flexibility to build "environmentally acceptable" roads in lieu of the makeshift roads created by people using the forest for recreation and off-roading, he said. The user-created roads can damage the forest through erosion or by trampling sensitive habitat, Mathes added.

Throughout the planning process, environmental, recreational and industry groups competed for a say in how Southern California's last remaining roadless areas should be used. Groups such as the National Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and the Riverside Land Conservancy have advocated for increased wilderness protection. Groups such as the Warrior Society, the International Mountain Bicycling Association and Trails 4 All have sought to expand trail and road systems for recreational use.

In the meantime, a proposal for a hydroelectric power plant in Lake Elsinore is the first one on the horizon to test the state's tolerance of new road construction against the federal government's more flexible standards.

If approved, the plan would involve pumping water from the lake to a hilltop reservoir and then releasing it downhill to power turbines during peak electricity demand. The electricity would travel along power lines through 30 miles of the Cleveland National Forest.

The project would require access roads to be built through wilderness areas of the forest, said Sandy Cooney, spokesman for the California Resources Agency.