September 28, 2007

Fire threat versus bid to expand Inland wilderness

The Press-Enterprise

Lawmakers have worked for decades to keep vast swaths of wilderness pristine -- free of human development and industry.

But as the space between communities and protected wilderness areas narrows, firefighters are concerned about the increasing threat of wildfire, particularly in places such as fire-prone Inland Southern California.

On Thursday, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Rep. Mary Bono, R-Palm Springs, introduced legislation that would add more than 150,000 acres of protected wilderness in Riverside County, most near Joshua Tree National Park and the San Jacinto Mountains. An additional 41,000 acres would be designated as "potential wilderness" until final property claims are settled by the National Park Service.

Environmentalists heralded the plan. But fire and county officials are reserving judgment until they can assess whether the plan will impede their ability to aggressively fight wildland fires with mechanized equipment and address the overgrowth of vegetation in protected wilderness areas.

Boxer said she knew of no opposition and that she wouldn't pass any bill opposed by firefighters.

Riverside County officials, already contemplating severe restrictions on new development in high fire-hazard areas, have asked the region's fire chiefs to recommend how to proceed, said Bob Tremaine, a county management analyst.

"I understand and share their concerns," said Bono. "In Southern California, we know all too well how devastating fires can be."

Permits Tree Removal

She said the bill permits tree removal and other fire prevention work to lessen the danger to communities, including Idyllwild, that lie close to the proposed wilderness areas. Such language was key in convincing the Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council to drop its opposition to the bill, Bono said.

Officials from Cal Fire, the state's firefighting agency, have yet to take a position, spokesman Michael Jarvis said. But he said the wilderness designation "restricts the methods we use for fire suppression."

Taxpayers spent $118 million over two months this summer to combat the Zaca Fire, which consumed 240,200 acres, much of it in the steep and rocky terrain of the San Rafael Wilderness of Santa Barbara County.

Jarvis said efforts to battle the blaze were complicated by a prohibition against using mechanized equipment in the designated wilderness areas.

The problem today is that homes and communities have sprung up on the fringes of the wilderness, said Mike Esnard, a Pine Cove resident and president of the Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council, a mostly volunteer organization that works with Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service to eliminate fire hazards in the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountains.

Two Key Areas

Esnard said two areas of particular concern are the South Fork of the San Jacinto River and the Cahuilla Mountains near Anza, which the legislation would designate as wilderness areas.

He said the U.S. Forest Service has inadequate funding to properly manage wilderness areas with prescribed burning and mechanical thinning of vegetation and trees.

"These lands are too close to populations to ignore. We want to make sure the Forest Service is not presented with particularly onerous obstacles to doing that," Esnard said. He confirmed that the council had decided, for now, not to oppose the legislation.

"In fairness to everybody, it is a complex issue and you have two competing, worthwhile values -- fire safety on one hand and wilderness on the other," he said.

The bill, called the California Desert and Mountain Heritage Act, is the most recent piece of a plan championed by Boxer and Rep. Hilda Solis, D-El-Monte, to add some 2.4 million acres of protected wilderness throughout California.

The current bills follow a long line of wilderness legislation.

President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the original Wilderness Act in 1964, protecting roughly 9 million acres nationwide.

Defined as those areas "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain," wilderness areas were set out to be protected from human intrusion, development and industry.

David Dreher, a government affairs representative with the environmental group Campaign for American Wilderness, said the Forest Service should follow the direction of Congress and continue cutting overgrown wildland to prevent large, unnatural fires.

Red Tape Factor

For years, Big Bear City fire Chief Dana Van Leuven has spoken out against plans to create thousands of acres of wilderness area near the small town of Sugarloaf.

He said regardless of the language in bills allowing for fuel breaks, tree removal or other fire prevention efforts, the red tape and environmental review processes are prohibitively difficult.

The costs and time associated with projects in wilderness areas effectively cause them to be passed over for simpler cheaper projects, he said.

"Designate it wilderness and it's almost guaranteed that nothing will ever be done," Van Leuven said. "That's the point-blank truth of what occurs."