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.
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.”