April 16, 2013
Kit Stolz, OVN correspondent
In January 2001, just days before exiting office, the Clinton administration issued a “roadless rule” prohibiting construction of new roads on more than 58 million acres of national forest lands.
Now, after numerous legal fights over the rule, the Forest Service has issued a new “land management plan” to protect 300,000 acres of wild areas in the Los Padres backcountry from the construction of new roads, and is asking for comments from the public.
“The environmental groups’ beef was that our land use management plan from 2006 didn’t reflect what was in the roadless rule,” said Kyle Kinports, planner with the Forest Service in Goleta. “It wasn’t as restrictive. We’re making a good faith effort to align our land management zone policies with the roadless rule, and so we’re being a little more restrictive and not allowing motorized vehicles (in the roadless areas).”
The lands in question, called Inventoried Roadless Areas, are already being managed as “backcountry non-motorized lands,” according to Ojai’s district ranger Sue Exline. Near Ojai, they can be found on the fringes of the Matilija Wilderness and the Sespe Wilderness. Exline stresses that the plan in consideration would restrict the construction of new roads, but will not mean the elimination or restriction of activities on existing roads, including mountain biking.
“A wilderness designation would preclude the use of mechanical equipment, including mountain bikes,” she said. “That’s a popular use. We see a lot of use of our fire roads by bicyclists, and that influenced our decision to recommend these lands for ‘backcountry non-motorized’ uses and not for wilderness.”
The Forest Service issued a land management plan for Southern California forests in 2006 that was quickly challenged by lawsuits from environmental groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity (which often litigates on endangered species issues) and from California’s Natural Resources Agency. After three years of legal back-and-forth, Federal District Court Judge Marilyn Patel Hall accepted a settlement between the many parties, which required the Forest Service to redraft the plans with an emphasis on preservation of habitat for endangered species.
The Forest Service put forth three alternatives for consideration by the public, which has until May 16 to comment. The first alternative calls for no change. The second alternative, recommended by the Forest Service, calls for most of the roadless plans to be designated as “back country non-motorized,” which allows for mountain bikes. The third alternative calls for more lands to be recommended for wilderness, which would require eventual action by Congress. Exline said that none of the plans would restrict those who have “in-holdings” in the National Forest from accessing their lands, nor would it restrict the Forest Service or county agencies from using the tools they need to fight fire in emergency situations.
“I think what the planners have been trying to do is find an alternative to wilderness in large open areas where there will not be industrial activities such as logging, but where certain activities could be permitted where a road already exists,” said Allan West, a former administrator for the Forest Service, who has retired in Ojai after serving for many years as a district ranger in Los Padres, and in Washington, D.C. “Fire is such a problem in Southern California that they need the ability to find fire, and to do defensive actions such as prescribed burns, which is contrary to the wilderness act.”
Ileene Anderson, a biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the environmental groups that sued over the 2006 land management plan, stressed the co-operative nature of the process. She said her group had worked with public officials and with off-road vehicle groups to design a fair process for consideration of which roads and trails should remain and which should be considered for eventual removal and restoration.
“Certainly we have concerns with some of the roads that are out there now, with impacts on rare and endangered species, and also on clean water downstream from crossings. Even trails can cause problems for some species, such as the arroyo toad,” she said. “Is there a better way to do a trail than for it to go in and out of a perennial stream 75 times over a period of a few miles?”
The Forest Service has not scheduled meetings on the issue in Ventura County, but has held meetings in Frazier Park and Goleta, which were chosen as a halfway point between Santa Maria and Ventura. Both Anderson and Exline encouraged public comments.
“It’s important for people to know that we provide many opportunities for comment, but once we issue a decision, if people want to object they need to have voiced their concerns about it during the public comment process,” Exline said.
Most comments are received by email. A form for commenting online is available at the Southern California Land Management Plan Amendment page, https://cara.ecosystem-management.org/Public/CommentInput?Project=35130.