About a dozen federally protected endangered species, including the southwestern willow flycatcher and the Laguna Mountains skipper butterfly, live in the Cleveland National Forest, the 424,000-acre woodland preserve that stretches across the rugged backcountry of three Southern California counties.
Marcella Fescina isn't on the government's list of threatened forest dwellers. Yet the 46-year-old, a part-time resident of the Cleveland's Pine Creek cabin tract, may be on the verge of disappearing, too, together with 36 of her neighbors.
"I still have high hopes that nobody is going to get us," Fescina says as she prepares for her weekly trip from her home in Clairemont to the site in the Cleveland that has been in her family for almost 50 years.
"It would kill me if I had to tear the cabin down."
In 1951, two years before Fescina was born, her parents, Willard and Jennette Winberg, bought a burned-out cabin alongside a creek just north of Pine Valley, a town 45 miles east of San Diego so well nestled in its hollow that drivers on nearby Interstate 8 can speed past without seeing it.
The Winbergs quickly rebuilt on the site. The new cabin was simple at first, but over time, it grew to be a three-bedroom, two-story home away from home. Willard did most of the work himself on weekends with supplies hauled up from San Diego in the family car. On Fridays, when he got home from his job at the phone company, Willard would pack up his Chrysler with lumber and concrete, as well as food and water. He'd pull out from the family home on Illinois Street, head east on surface streets, and then pick up U.S. 80, easing up on the accelerator on the stretch between Alpine and Pine Valley, where the road was narrow and the turns were sharp.
By the time Fescina was born in 1953, the cabin at Pine Creek was complete, and the Winbergs, who now spent most weekends there, joined an exclusive group: The 15,200 Americans -- just 245 of them in San Diego County -- who own vacation homes on national forest land.
Over the years, some things have changed, including the annual permit fee, which has jumped from $30 to $1250. In the 1970s, the trip to Pine Creek was shortened when the long-delayed I-8 extension into San Diego's backcountry finally opened. In 1981, Fescina's father died. Two years later, she purchased the cabin from her mother. In 1989, fire raced through the structure again. Only two stone chimneys, built by Fescina's father and uncle Newell, were left standing. After a year of indecision, she resolved to rebuild in the early 1990s, incorporating the surviving chimneys into the new cabin.
But the rhythm Pine Creek imposes on Fescina's life hasn't changed all that much over the years. Most Fridays, Fescina (she hasn't dropped her ex-husband's name), Armando, her partner of 16 years, and Hank, the couple's six-year-old German Shepherd, head east just as her parents did.
Fescina just finds it harder to relax once she arrives.
The worries began this spring, a year after environmentalists sued the Forest Service over alleged Endangered Species Act violations in four Southern California forests, including the Cleveland, when the government released a report on the impact cabins were having on threatened wildlife.
For most cabin owners in San Diego County, the news was good. The report, authored by Craig Cowie, a 25-year veteran of the Forest Service, found that 11 of the 12 tracts in the county were in compliance with the Endangered Species Act and the Forest Plan, a document that comes out every 10 to 15 years and guides all activities in the Cleveland, from camping and hiking to cabin dwelling and mining.
The exception was the Pine Creek tract, where Fescina and her neighbors were told they were "inconsistent with the Forest Plan." Their homes, which in some cases had been in the families for two or three generations, might have to be dismantled, their permits revoked.
Suddenly, Fescina's connection to the Cleveland, the cabin her father built and she and Armando rebuilt, is in jeopardy. And the threat, it turns out, comes from a neighbor she and her fellow Pine Creek residents had heard -- but rarely seen -- for years.
"It's a toad thing," explains Anne Carey, a ranger who works in the San Diego County portion of the forest.
THE U.S. GOVERNMENT issued its first cabin permit, or recreation residence special-use permit, around 1908. Theodore Roosevelt, that great lover of the outdoors, was president, and the country's forest reserves were still new.
The permits allowed holders to build dwellings on forest land for "recreational purposes" only. Although the cabins were the property of the permit holders, they could not -- and still cannot -- be used as primary residences or rented.
In exchange for this privileged access to public land, the cabin owners paid a small annual rent and provided unofficial assistance to the perpetually understaffed Forest Service, watching for fires, reporting unauthorized hunting or mining, and providing emergency aid when necessary.
Fescina's family began its association with the national forests in Southern California in the 1920s, when her maternal grandfather, Guy Casler, a caretaker in the Angeles Forest, built a cabin in the woodlands where he worked and moved his wife, his daughter Jennette, and his sons Newell and Earle into the structure. The experience gave Jennette, Fescina's mother, a taste for the outdoors that she passed onto her husband and her daughter.
"It really has been part of our heritage," Fescina says.
In the Cleveland, about 330 cabins were built by the time the last new permit was issued in the early 1950s. The earliest, erected in 1911, was a simple wood affair known as El Prado that was used by rangers. It still stands today. Most of the recreational cabins on the Cleveland were constructed later, during the 1930s and '40s, often with native stone or timber. Although a few cabins are scattered around Orange County, most are located here in San Diego County and concentrated in clusters up on Mt. Laguna and down in Pine Creek.