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…Same as the Old Development

“San Diego Country Estates was one of the worst development decisions of all time in San Diego, in terms of harm to nature and risk to people from wildfire,” David Hogan says hyperbolically. He’s still wearing his dark sunglasses, and we’ve driven back down through Ramona and headed south on San Vicente Road. “It’s distant from the urban core,” he says. “It sticks out like a sore thumb in the Cleveland National Forest, and its exposure to fire risk is enormous. Yet there’s thousands of people who live here.”

San Vicente Road — which turns into Ramona Oaks Road — is the only access to San Diego Country Estates. That route was gridlocked for hours with evacuees from the 2003 Cedar Fire and the 2007 Witch Fire. The residents were essentially trapped here as the fires burned around them.

“Way too many people live out here in an area that doesn’t have the resources to support them,” Hogan says. “And that’s to say nothing of fire risk and the fact that there’s only one road in and out.”

San Diego Country Estates pops up out of a nowhere of mountains and valleys. Suddenly, it’s all golf courses, tennis courts, fountains, green lawns, lush trees, thick shrubs, and large houses.

“A part of me likes to think that this is the bad planning of the past,” Hogan says. “But it’s not true. Right now, the City of Santee is pressing forward with its approval for a massive new subdivision called Fanita Ranch, and it’ll be exactly the same situation as this, surrounded by public lands. So nobody’s learned their lessons from this.”

Because San Diego Country Estates is here — and it was built back in the 1970s — the forest service is compelled to subject the forest to fuels-reduction activities nearby. “There’s a din from the County Board of Supervisors,” says Hogan, “especially when there’s fires, that the forest service isn’t doing enough to get rid of all of that brush. But ‘brush’ is a pejorative term. And the brush that they’re referring to is an intensely valuable native ecosystem called ‘chaparral and coastal sage scrub’ that in turn provides incredible value not just for wildlife and plants but for people. These shrublands are what prevent all the hills from washing down into our reservoirs and water supplies.”

Hogan, who often seems to mint phrases that sound as though they would work as bumper stickers, then says, “The brush is treated as public enemy number one. But the real enemy is bad land-use planning.”

San Diego Country Estates winds up San Vicente Road and branches off onto a series of arteries, all of which run into the mountains and then become dead ends. Ironically, many of the roads here are named for the wilderness that was bulldozed so that the roads could be built: Ramona Oaks, Thornbush, Sage Hill.

“When they name their roads, I would love to see the developers of these subdivisions be honest for once,” Hogan says. He parks his truck along a dead end. “Ugly Stucco Home Way. More Purple Iceplant Drive.”

Out at the end of Ramona Oaks Road, the mountains of the Cleveland National Forest recede beneath a blue sky and blazing sun. There’s almost no sound out here, except for the wind across your ears.

To walk out into the scrubland, Hogan takes along a telescoping metal walking stick. “For rattlesnakes,” he says. “To let them know you’re coming.”

This area at the end of the last road of San Diego Country Estates burned in the Cedar Fire but has recovered beautifully. In most places, bright greens have taken over the grays and the blacks. Cuyamaca Peak and Julian Peak are visible in the distance, with Eagle Peak looming front and center.

Hogan explains that the chaparral ecosystem actually benefits from fires, but only from fires that start up infrequently. Before humankind, the only way for fire to start in the wild was a lightning strike. It may have been a hundred years between burns in a wilderness area, plenty of time for the place to become robust and established.

But now we have power lines that fall in high winds, cigarette butts flying out of car windows, kids playing with matches, hikers lighting campfires, and on and on.

When these places burn every few years, the plants that replace the old growth are usually exotic weeds and grasses that aren’t indigenous — though they do grow more easily than the native plants. These plants don’t play a part in the natural order of wildlife in Southern California. This shifting of ecosystems is called “type conversion.”

“The forest service is actually pursuing type conversion here,” Hogan says incredulously. “They have a project called the San Vicente Community Defense Zone, and they want to do heavy-handed vegetation treatment here to protect these houses from fires. Now, it’s really important to do vegetation management right near where people live, but this is a very poorly designed project that’s not right at the edge of where people live. It’s out in the forest, where it provides very few values for protecting people, and it does tremendous harm to nature.”

Hogan says a big part of what the Center for Biological Diversity is doing now is trying to educate people about creating a narrow defense zone around where they live and leaving the rest of the shrublands alone.

“We don’t know whether these hillsides will ever recover,” Hogan says, again waving his very large hand across the range of all that can be seen. “Those hills have burned twice in the last 4 years, and the hillside that we’re on has burned six or seven times in the last 50 years. And that’s just too much.”

The abutting juxtapositions of San Diego Country Estates and the natural landscape that surround it are striking. A litter of man-made colors and shapes — rectangular oranges and metallic corners — stand among the rounded gray rocks and rolling green contours.

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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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