By Miriam Raftery
March 29, 2013 (Ramona) – Today, San Diego County has filed a lawsuit seeking declaratory relief and an injunction to halt the U.S. Forest Service from reopening the trail to Cedar Creek Falls from Ramona’s San Diego Country Estates. The suit follows the USFS announcement that it plans to reopen the trailhead April 5th and implement a permit system for visitors. The falls and a natural swimming pool below are considered by some to be the most spectacular natural attractions in East County.
“The lawsuit is in response to the Forest Service’s decision to ignore both the public safety and fiscal concerns raised by the County during the appeal of the permit system plan,” Supervisor Dianne Jacob said in a press statement issued today. “Adequate law enforcement staffing must be in place before the trail is opened back up. Either the Forest Service needs to be able to enforce its own rules, or pay the Sheriff’s Department to do it.”
The San Diego River Gorge trailhead near Ramona has been closed since July 9, 2011 when an El Cajon teen, Joseph Meram, fell to his death. A second trail to the falls was also closed temporarily, but reopened last year.
Prior to the closure, improvements to the trail had led to a substantial increase in users, including partying teens, creating problems with parking, traffic and trash in the nearby community.
Numerous rescues on the trail in recent years diverted law enforcement and fire personnel to handle the emergencies. Visitors have suffered dehydration, severe injuries, heat-related illness, and several deaths have also occurred at the falls.
The Forest Service has taken some steps to improve safety, including banning alcohol, improving signage and now, implementing a permit system that would restrict the number of visitors allowed per day on the popular trail. But the County contends such actions do not go far enough and that a finding of “no significant impact” in the final Enviornmnetal Asessment for the Visitor Use Permit System by Cleveland National Forest Service violates multiple federal laws. The USFS does not comment on pending litigation.
Cedar Creek Falls has been a source of headaches for the Forest Service, which is also being sued by the family of the teen who died in July 2011 after becoming separated from family and reportedly slipping, then plunging to his death over the falls. That lawsuit accused the USFS of negligence and contends that federal authorities failed to take action despite a long string of deaths and injuries at the falls, also ignoring the USFS's own District Ranger’s warning of dangers and pleas for emergency action.
The waterfall was long a well-kept secret among rugged hiking enthusiasts, until Internet videos revealed the irresistible temptation to the masses.
Dennis Richardson, a veteran outdoorsman who has enjoyed hiking to the falls since the 1960s, has previously criticized the USFS for making the trail too easily accessible.
“To make a dangerous place like Cedar Creek Falls inviting to the careless public by making the trail easy to travel was a wrong choice made by the Forest Service,” he observed, adding that the improved trail brought in “gang types, violence, graffiti, trash, crime, and now the falls [area] has become an attractive nuisance which resulted in a long closure.”
Richardson has echoed fears of many backcountry enthusiasts who worry that restrictions, patrols, or closure could ultimately prohibit long-time wilderness users from “the freedoms we have enjoyed for generations.”