April 18, 2008

Bill seeks to add thousands of acres of wilderness

California Desert and Mountain Heritage Act

The Press-Enterprise

William Wilson Lewis III / The Press-Enterprise
John Garner's favorite spot to go hiking with his dog Daisy, along the south fork of the San Jacinto River, could become a federally designated wilderness area as part of a bill pending in Congress to protect 191,000 acres throughout Riverside County.

John Garner and Daisy, his German shepherd, hike a dirt trail above Hemet most mornings before he heads to work.

The five-mile trail hugs the side of a chaparral-studded canyon in the San Jacinto Mountains, then veers down to a tranquil river valley festooned with cottonwoods, willows and oaks where the only signs of modern civilization are jet contrails overhead.

"It's really quiet, peaceful," said Garner, 41, who owns Jag Pest Control in Hemet.

Garner said that although he was unaware his favorite hiking spot -- 21,670 acres with the south fork of the San Jacinto River at its heart -- may become a federally designated wilderness, he'd support the move.

This spring, Congress is likely to consider it in legislation by Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Palm Springs, and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., that would protect 191,000 acres across Riverside County.

But the quest to garner the nation's highest form of land protection for a region prone to wildfires and heavily recreated has required compromises that allow the boundaries to be drawn in a way that permits normally banned activities in wilderness. Federal wilderness areas prohibit the use of mechanized equipment -- fire equipment, off-road vehicles and even mountain bikes.

And there could still be more compromises as Bono Mack faces fellow lawmakers who believe such concessions undermine the intent of the 1964 Wilderness Act. The act defines those areas as "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

"They think we're spoiling the wilderness designation," Bono Mack said of some of her colleagues. "It's hard to explain to people what Southern California wildfires are ... and it's precedent-setting that we're trying to take into consideration fire caution.

"I do worry and I think often about risking people's property or certainly lives with legislation like this," if it bans firefighting trucks and equipment, she said. "We're trying to be very, very careful. We're in uncharted territory here."

For instance, a fire road that snakes down the middle of the proposed South Fork San Jacinto Wilderness was left outside of the boundaries. The road, known as Rouse Ridge, is also used by off-roaders and mountain bikers as a link to Thomas Mountain.

"We wanted that bisect to be maintained," said Tom Ward, policy advisor for the International Mountain Bicycling Association-California. He said his group helped craft the compromises with the California Wilderness Coalition.

Mike Dietrich, fire chief for the San Bernardino National Forest, said Rouse Ridge, although quite bumpy, is a well-established fire road that provides good access to help douse fires in the rugged terrain.

Some in the environmental community support the compromises.

"I think that it's very important especially in Southern California to ensure we have all the tools we need to fight fire and protect our communities," said Shane Walton, of Palm Springs, with Friends of the River, which is pushing for the bill's passage.

The South Fork wilderness proposal is a few miles from the town of Mountain Center, just south of Idyllwild.

The Bill

Boxer, after testifying Tuesday for the bill during a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee's Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forest, dismissed the notion that the bill has been watered down.

"What we're doing is we are making sure that if there's a fire, it can be put out ..." she said. "And we're not changing or weakening the rules here. We're just explicitly stating them so people know."

The bill would create four new wilderness areas across Riverside County in Joshua Tree National Park, the San Bernardino National Forest and open desert; increase the amount of land in six existing wilderness areas; add 31 miles of rivers to the National Wild and Scenic River System; and expand the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument by about 8,000 acres.

Bono Mack suspects the language in the 1964 Wilderness Act was based on circumstances happening then. For instance, areas weren't as populated, and the term wildland-urban interface -- the places where residences back up against wildland -- wasn't even thought of. And some say mountain biking wasn't yet invented.

Jenn Dice, with the international mountain biking group in Boulder, Colo., said biking trails recently have been included in wilderness areas across the nation but the issue often pits "old-school" wilderness advocates against recreationists who also oppose large-scale development.

"We believe our core values are the same as environmentalists'," she said. "We want clean water, clean air and healthy ecosystems. But it gets dicey when you're talking about wilderness and nothing else."

Both Dice and Ward said the real threat to wildlands is development.

Making the Compromise

Bill Dart, of the Off-Road Business Association, asked to downgrade the wilderness designations in Bono Mack's bill to a so-called "backcountry" -- meaning it would ban future development but allow recreation -- when he testified in November before a House subcommittee.

The off-roading group came around and now supports the bill after negotiating with Bono Mack's office, Dart said.

Bono Mack said it took a telephone call from her to an off-roading leader and assurances that the Bradshaw trail around the Orocopia and Chuckwalla mountains in eastern Riverside County wouldn't be affected.

"It was never clear, and we gave them certainty on it," she said.

Bono Mack has experience trying to hatch compromises in the name of land protection. She spearheaded creation of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument above the Coachella Valley eight years ago when President Clinton created more than a dozen in the West when he signed an executive order.

Bono Mack said it has been a similar experience this time.

"It's always been about bringing as many concerned people to the table to discuss the issues," she said.

Walton has a more ethereal reason for wanting the land protected, he said while sitting on the grass in a meadow near the San Jacinto River in the proposed wilderness.

"It's good for my spirits," he said of hiking. "... It leaves me feeling good for the whole day."