By Miriam Raftery
December 29, 2012 (San Diego’s East County)—“Scenic resources are among the biggest values we can offer to the American people,” Will Metz, Cleveland National Forest Supervisor, told ECM.
The U.S. Forest Service is now weighing a proposal to protect vast tracts of federal forests as roadless wilderness—including 42,000 of Cleveland National Forest. That includes the lands around Cedar Creek and above Cedar Creek Falls, Eagle Peak, the upper San Diego River Gorge, and the Caliente area.
The proposal will likely be open for public comment in January and could be finalized by mid-2013. While the USFS would then manage the lands as wilderness, it would take an act of Congress to formalize the designation.
Portions of Padre, Angeles, and San Bernadino national forests would also be designated as wilderness, in addition to the 42,000 acres in Cleveland National Forest here in San Diego’s East County.
The decision arose as the result of a lawsuit settlement. A suit filed against state and federal agencies contended that the USFS did not adequately protect habitat and endangered species. The settlement enabled forest officials to take a look at federal forest lands in southern California and propose more restrictive uses in some places.
“From my perspective, being able to take a second look was a great opportunity,” Metz said. “Southern California forest lands are under a lot of pressure,” he noted. “We’re pretty urbanized and there is a constant balancing act of vying interests,” Metz added.
As examples, he cited pressures from utility companies and wind energy developers for projects on forest lands, as well as housing developments on adjacent lands. A wind testing study has been approved in Thing Valley within the Descanso Ranger District, and other wind developers have also expressed interest. Sunrise Powerlink also carved out lands with CNF for high voltage power lines.
While Metz says the federal government deems energy projects acceptable uses for forest lands in “appropriate areas” , he adds that energy interestse must be balanced against other interests including endangered species, habitat, scenic view sheds, fragmentation of the forest, and Native American cultural resources.
Forest Service officials are also looking at changing the way it permits projects for SDG&E, which is currently in the process of converting wood poles to steel to reduce fire danger. Currently, SDG&E has close to 100 difrerent permits. “We’re looking to be more efficient with one permit, or several,” Metz said. He denied rumors that SDG&E is attempting to build stealth new powerlines through the forest, and asys he has worked hard to mitigate impacts of Powerlink.
Roadless designation, if approved, would keep motorized vehicles out of those areas. Hikers will still be able to enter and enjoy Cedar Creek Falls, Metz assured, however the new designation would protect those areas around and above the popular hiking destination from projects such as wind turbines.
San Diego County has lost significant portions of our forested lands to wildfires in recent years, notably the 2003 Cedar Fire that burned over 99% of the pine forests in Rancho Cuyamaca State4 Park. Fortunately, Cleveland National Forest lands were largely spared.
“What we’ve learned is our forests are very resilient,” Metz said, citing Palomar after the fires, adding that he is more concerned with the frequency than intensity of wildfires when it comes to changing the landscape and habitat.
Roadless designation offers long-term protection for vast areas of East County’s remaining forests and wildlife habitat—a move Metz believes is good not only for the land and woodland creatures, but also for the people of San Diego County to enjoy open spaces and solitude.
“There are not a lot ofopportunities for that here,” the Cleveland National Forest Supervisor concludes. ““There are approximately 10 million citizens within an hour’s drive--that’s quite a lot of humanity that has access to Cleveland National Forest.”