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A lawsuit was filed in March of this year by five environmental groups — including the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club — stating that overarching land-management plans prepared by the U.S. Forest Service in 2005 do little to protect federally listed species and critical habitat from harm. The suit involves all four national forests in Southern California, including the Cleveland National Forest in San Diego County.

Forest Service officials, sick of being vilified, would rather see compromise.

Meet the New Development…

Most of the countryside north of Ramona is still rugged and beautiful. Vaulting hills pull the view up toward the blue sky, wide valleys pull the view out toward the distant horizon, and a litter of boulders pops up periodically among the pervasive ground-covering green. Whole vistas in this scenic area remain almost untouched by human hands.

But then...

Just outside downtown Ramona, a mile or two after Magnolia Avenue turns into Black Canyon Road, you turn left onto Stokes Road and head up into Rolling Hills Estates.

Glistening white plastic fences and streaming yellow pennants herald the arrival of the “royal” subdivision: the development of a new place for people to come and live in huge houses close to untouched mother nature.

“We’re in a subdivision that is one of the best and worst examples of how development is unfortunately occurring next to the Cleveland National Forest,” says David Hogan, 38, unfolding his lanky frame from the driver’s seat of his truck and surveying the wide scene through sunglasses. Hogan is the conservation manager for the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help “those who come after us to inherit a world where the wild is still alive.”

Well over half of Rolling Hills Estates isn’t built yet. A few finished, lived-in houses stand next to a few finished, vacant ones, next to half-finished construction sites, next to cleared empty lots, next to areas where lots will presumably be. Much of the land of these estates is just exposed soil that’s eroding.

“Development is going to occur, obviously, and in some areas it’s going to be inevitable,” Hogan says, sounding like a teacher. “But it can be done in a way — especially when you’re at the edge of these precious natural lands — that don’t spill the impacts of development into the national forest.”

Hogan’s tone changes.

“Here, there’s this very arrogant spillover of impacts into the forest,” he says. He sweeps his huge hand across the landscape with a motion that seems to encompass both that landscape and his own disgust. “The lots are bulldozed right up to the forest boundary. Which then implies that there’s an expectation that the national forest has to manage the shrublands that are right next to it to prevent fire risk for the people that move here, instead of the developer or future residents taking responsibility for protecting homes and managing vegetation on their own property.”

Rolling Hills Estates is situated along a paved road cut up into and over a hillside. At the end of the road, at the top of the hill, two empty lots overlook a vast expanse of shrubland. From there, it’s easy to see the differences between healthy native chaparral and chaparral that has burned recently and chaparral that burned a long time ago. The healthy chaparral is dark green, tall, and bushy; the recent burn is light green, short, and has black spindles sticking up out of it. Interspersed are dead gray branches with healthy bushes growing out of them, the result of a fire back in the mid ’90s.

The Witch Fire burned through here last October. It started 15 miles to the east, and intense winds pushed it through this area within a few hours.

“This illustrates a major concern, which is unnaturally frequent fire in the national forest,” Hogan says.

The landscape looks like an advertisement for fire, telling prospective home builders, You’re next.

Hogan’s eyes are hidden behind his sunglasses. He half chuckles and half shakes his head. “This is an extraordinarily dangerous place to live, when it comes to fire risk,” he says.

Hogan reaches into the truck and grabs a bottle of water. It’s a hot April day, close to 90 degrees. Hogan stands a full 6’5”, but he never played basketball. “I’m an enviro-geek, not a sports guy,” he laughs. His height and long limbs explain why an enviro-geek would drive a Toyota Tundra truck. “It’s the first car I’ve ever fit into,” he says. He adds, guiltily, “But that doesn’t make it good for the environment.”

Hogan grew up in Solana Beach and has been engaged in endangered-species advocacy and conservation work since he was 17. Nowadays, one of his major concerns is protecting what is probably San Diego County’s most valuable patch of landscape, the Cleveland National Forest.

One of four Southern California national forests — along with the San Bernardino, Angeles, and Los Padres — the Cleveland National Forest runs from the Mexican border up to Orange County in the Santa Ana Mountains. The Southern California counties that contain those forests are home to 12 of the 50 fastest-growing cities in the U.S., and 60 of the nation’s 250 largest cities are located within a two-hour drive of most parts of these four national forests. This places an enormous developmental pressure on natural resources.

Rolling Hills Estates is a poster place for the threats of urbanization on the national forest.

“The concern isn’t the homeowner who wants his 40 acres or his 180 acres or whatever,” Hogan says. “The concern is the subdivisions. This was done for profit. Somebody came out here where land was cheap, bought it, subdivided it into smaller pieces, and is now selling it off to people who may not know what they’re getting into. So the ultimate responsibility, first of all, [is] the County Board of Supervisors that approved the subdivision. They’re culpable for the harm that comes to the natural environment and the risk of putting people in harm’s way. Then you have the developers. They might be the worst villain, because they’re entirely driven by a profit motive. And then, there’s the people that move in, and often, they’re fairly oblivious. So whatever we can do to increase the education is good.”

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Comments

iokuok2 July 25, 2008 @ 2:47 a.m.

Its pristine, really really pristine. I gather you haven't been there either. In fact there are places the Indians didn't even go because they are hard to get to; and they are really really really really pristine.

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iokuok2 July 24, 2008 @ 2:17 p.m.

When I file my proverbial lawsuit, it’s not jus the environmental black and white but also the boy and girl of it all. We owe a huge gratitude to Dave Hogan, Bill Corcoran. and others. It would all be condos and power lines it they didn't jump in there. Nevertheless there are flaws. The path in to the gurgling Cedar Creek on Boulder Creek road. No. but ok, get a map. Cuyamacca, the 2nd highest peak, eclipsed barely by Hotsprings Mountain. Whatever. The line about the Sunrise Power line and the words "supposed to" even Dave knows the Opt D alternative is an atrocity, there is no “suppose to”. The big thorn in my side is these people have not been way deep into it . Not Dave, well maybe a little, definitely not Bill, and for the most part excepting Jeff Wells, not the Forest Service. I have. All over the place, time and again. I've asked and asked with the minimal success. They are guys. I am not. Every newspaper in the county wants to talk to a guy about the woods. Not to a women. They short change themselves: The proposed Eagle Peak Wilderness was conceived by a woman (the wonderful Camille Armstrong, photographed, documented, and adopted by a woman , that be me , the best taxonomist in the forest, supplying thousands of plants and identifications to the Natural History Museum, is a woman, the world famous wildlife biologist that surveyed the animals initially, was a woman, one of the two Forest service biologists that has stood under enormous pressure and weighed in on the area, is a woman, and it was even proposed as a wilderness to congress--by a woman, Senator Barbara Boxer. But the major papers keep interviewing men. The FS has whole initiatives for activities dominated (under the proverbial bell curve) by men. Hate to sound like a throwback to the 70ies feminist movement, but it’s getting old. Why? Everything about the pristineness and raw beauty is true, but if they had been there, waaay deep in there, they would know what an understatement: -it’s about a 100 times more so -gorgeous and beautiful and valuable just like it is. We don't have much like it so close to home. You can’t mitigate pristine. The Forest Service designations along upper Cedar Creek are outrageous. Half way through the 15 year process many designations were relaxed considerably. The forest service should be held accountable for this, reason alone for a law suit. We had a jewel in the Descanso district Ranger, Tom Gillette but I hear he is leaving. What horrible timing for all of us. I agree with Dave when he says they have pressure from above. It isn't right to threaten a rare treasure like this by someone with know-it-all-power from out of town that has no idea what is really here. When the boys keep looking for more and more ways to act out their manhood and justify it with noise and destructions and some tirade on their "rights”, they need to suck it in and actually go hiking with us. We’ll go easy on you!

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iokuok2 July 24, 2008 @ 5:02 p.m.

a couple of exceptions. Peter Rowe of the UT did do a wonderful article a few years ago and even a followup on the SD River and we did hike him in a Mile, he also ventured into the upper Cedar Creek gorge. Dave Volgarino of the Descanso District was kind enough in my flailing desparation to spend a day with me , (even though I'm a girl), driving Cedar Creek Road, viewing Kelly Gorge, Boulder Creek Road and a mile of Cedar Gorge. I desparately wanted the FS to see this before SDG&E tried to scrape it all to pieces. They need to see a whole lot more. At any rate, you're both wonderful and may the Kumeyaay Gods smile on you always!

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scutch July 24, 2008 @ 5:24 p.m.

One must be very careful throwing around words like pristine. To talk about fire history in San Diego County before humankind (as Mr. Hogan does) one needs to go back probably ten thousand or more years to a time when lightning was the only source of ignition, undoubtedly under very different climatic conditions. Humans have been here, using fire on the land, for many thousands of years. The effect of this use of fire and changes to fire frequency since then is pretty unclear, though many have tried to figure it out. But we haven't had a lightning dominated fire system in Southern California for a long time. These same humans managed and made a living off these "pristine" lands. TO say the land was a wilderness before the arrival of the spanish is, well, racist. When the spanish came they brought many more domesticated animals then are found on the land today, as well as all those non-native species that cause so much concern.
To imagine that putting a line on a map and calling a place wilderness somehow reverses all this history on the land and starts the clock running backward to some romanticized pristine balanced state is the worst kind of naivete - a naivete that "big sue 'em and sue 'em again" environmentalism is still amazingly guilty of. Ecosystems are dynamic and have history - there is no one pristine state that they are suppose to be in. The new Forest Service planning regs (the ones that produced these plans) does produce more general, strategic plans. The old plans, with all the site specific outcomes and targets, are the plans that these same groups would sue about over and over again in the past - so much so that none of the specifics in the old plans could be implemented. So why bother. The bottom line for the lawsuits for the new plans and the old is always the same - one special interest group does not get everything they want. When Dave Hogan talks about a compromise at the end of this article I really had a chuckle. Also Dave, its not 1990 anymore and most environmentalists have moved on from your blanket damnation of cows. Enviro groups are licking their chops at getting ahold of Rancho Guejito and turning it into a park. If cows are so bad than why is this working ranch so ecologically valuble and provide so much good habitat for County wildlife?? I have to laugh when I see the Center for Biological Diversity main page on livestock grazing that says livestock and arid lands don't mix. Arid lands are the reason humans domesticated livestock and goats and sheep in the first place and the main agricultural activity on arid lands - sustainable over thousands of years - has been grazing. Livestock grazing can be improperly managed and can have negative effects, but properly managed it can have little negative and even positive impacts. And if the ranching industry was supported better in San Diego County you may have fewer subdivisions that occur as ranchers give up and sell out.

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BackcountryGuy July 26, 2008 @ 11:46 a.m.

Why am I not suprised to discover that the spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity knows nothing about our County land use planning, very little about the new forest plan and is completely off base regarding habitat management.

First, all private lands within the Cleveland National Forest have been for over 15 years designated one house per 40 acres. The new proposed General plan changes this to 40, 80 and 160 acre per house. The only exception are the village cores.

The new Forest plan has closed most areas of the Forest to any motorize access, allows only administrative access on most routes and except for a couple of small areas, allows public access on but a few routes. The Forest has been shut down. How ironic that Hogan's primary tour of the Cleveland was through the vector he opposes most: a motorized vehicle.

As far as vegitation management, he is correct on one point; Brush is not the enemy. The real enemy are the misguided groups and individuals who promote preservation management of the forest, claimimg that only "naturally started" fires have any positive impact to the vegitation and have promoted a failed system of management based not on promoting the flora and fauna but through "preservation" based soley on eliminating any and all of man's influences on the land. Since the time of the ancient Kumeyaay, Spainards, Vaqueros and turn of the century ranchers, man has managed these lands through purposely burning, thinning and harvesting the plants and animals, in general nurturing and caring for the land. It is only the late 20th century environmentalists who have promoted this scheme of non-impact and what a failure it has become. Hogan should drive through Cuyamaca Rancho State Park to see the results of preservation management. The pine forest that has existed since time began has been virtually wiped out and is being replaced by chapparrel. The lack of fire has allowed bark beetles to infest these trees and what should have been nothing more than a quick healthy burn has incinerated the habitat and we have lost this forest forever. Cuyamaca Rancho State Park has been one of the most "preseved" managed lands in the entire State with no motorized use, no cutting or thining, no grazing, State designated wilderness and more.

The Center for Biological Diversity is not a typical environmental group that orchestrates clean ups, habitat restorations or land aquisitions. They are more like the attorney who sues businesses for obscure ADA violations then reaps financial windfalls when the opposing party caves in to their demands. Let's hope the Forest Service stands up to these environmental bullies and defend the Forest Services multiple use guidlines.

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keep_it_wild July 28, 2008 @ 11:53 a.m.

Come on Geoff. Sounds like you have a crush on Mr. Hogan. The parts of your article on him read like a romance novel. Funny you didn't include info on his real estate development project in the heart of the forest.

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iokuok2 July 28, 2008 @ 9:19 p.m.

The new forest plan didn't close much at all, to the contrary. It certainly didn't close the forest. You haven't been out there either--that's 3 for 3: Consider that only 12 years ago if you followed the instructions to Three Sisters Waterfall in Jerry Shad's book you would be greeted by an old man, relative to the oldest ranch out there, yelling from his mountain shack that you were on private property, threatening to call the sheriff, and to go the other way. You carefully check your copy of A Foot and A Field. You were right, this is public land. If you yielded, and did go the other way you were greeted by a relative of the 2nd oldest ranch and probably the largest, with shotgun in hand. His efforts correctly securing private land, eliminated Eagle Peak, all 5 miles of the upper Cedar Creek, Sunshine Mountain, McGee Flat and Deadmans flat, from public view. Also guarded at gunpoint might have included parts of the lower Cedar Creek Falls, and Mildred Falls. Then if you wondered far enough to the El Cap mesa , or NoName, you found yourself in between two tributaries of Boulder Creek being treated and tested with defoliants which subsequently washed into-yep our drinking water in El Cap. Today the Forest Service as well as the largest ranch owner had the foresight to turn it over to the public. Then there was the real Devil's punchbowl -for a fee-until insurance woos caught up with the enterprise and forced it closed-for real. Thanks to the forest service purchase we DO have access to these gorgeous places. The first 1/3 mile to Eagle Peak affords a glimpse of 150 Three sisters, a route that could easily be handicap adapted. One can hear an echo move all the way around Lillian Hill from right to left about a mile--if it isn't tempered by the sound of roaring machines, dirt bikes, helicopters, and hammer drills from the boys still working on their manhood. Consider what you are calling a "closure" was either trespassing or illegal entry -even then. A road is NOT where someone in the 50ies used a pickup truck to round a cow into a corral, nor is it where fire fighters cut a break during a fire, it's still illegal to go around a locked gate, even it you cut the fence, and driving is still a privilege, not a right. How many turned up for the recent forest open houses to discuss access? Hardly a handful-and one comment - from me. The real threat is ignorance; most fires are caused by people. The Cedar Fire started because a man under peer pressure went hunting, didn't want to admit he didn't know how to hike or navigate, failed to bring near enough water, became dehydrated, confused, and panicked and started a fire-200 yards from view of the road. Manhood. Peer pressure: his peer should have been charged for leaving him alone. Next time there is a forest initiative, I hope it includes a section on birth control!

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GreyHairandGreyMatter July 30, 2008 @ 3:45 p.m.

...We can all sit idly by and allow Mother Nature to wreak its havoc in the future, or we can actually do something demonstrable now to prevent the recurrence of such future firestorm devastation each and every time that we San Diegans suffer from one of these repetitive cataclysmic firestorms!

I wholeheartedly concur with Geoff Bouvier that far too many people in the aggregate "live out here," when compared to the total population of San Diego. Proportionally, however, it's actually a rather insignificant percentage.

After this past October, fires ravaged San Diego County. As the world watched their TV screens and Internet videos/photos in horrific disbelief, walls of white-hot flames, whipped by the wind, swept their way irreversibly across the landscape consuming everything in its path.

What can we do? What should we do? We can make a "null decision"--a positive decision to do nothing, or if we're more responsible we have the capability to deter and greatly reduce the impact of these all too frequent fire storms in the future.

How and where do we begin? Before the start of the 2008 re-growth period, we should establish a fixed three to five-mile wide fire break inland, north to south, border to border. This may not be feasible to complete this project before the start of the next fire season because we've already dillydallied for far too long in seriously addressing our ubiquitous firestorm problem.

All of the unpopulated areas in this strip would be made sterile [Similar to what the Romans did (salted) to the city of Carthage after Carthage was destroyed] and maintained permanently without vegetation. In addition to ground control operations, crop duster type airplanes would/should blanket the remainder of the terrain. Homeowners on mountain crests should be required to prevent wild growth in perpetuity within a 300 to 500-foot radius around their properties.

In addition to the 2.9 million citizens who deserve this protection San Diego also has the largest population of endangered animal species and plant life in the U.S. Preventing these firestorm disasters would be for their survival too!

We all know the cycle of nature's fire rampage will roar back again in San Diego County. Yogi Berra previously uttered it much less articulately, ["deja vu all over again]" but much more memorably. We can do nothing and have history keep repeating itself that in my opinion would be totally irresponsible or, respectfully, with stellar leadership and support, by implementing the foregoing plan [or a similar type of viable and cost-effective plan(s)] it will significantly reduce future San Diegan firestorm threats. Time is of the essence!

Fred III aka [Grey Hair and Grey Matter]

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