May 2, 2013
Kit Stolz, OVN correspondent
Ojai cares more about its national forest than many other communities in Southern California, according to Jeff Kuyper, who directs the environmental watchdog group Los Padres ForestWatch. He thinks Ojai’s relationship with the backcountry is special.
Although his organization is headquartered in Santa Barbara, and oversees the entire Los Padres forest — which extends across hundreds of thousands of acres in the state — Kuyper relies heavily on the little town of Ojai for volunteers and fundraising.
“The national forest is the Ojai Valley’s backyard,” he said. “I think that’s why the community is so concerned about these public lands and the fate of the national forest. From anywhere in Ojai you can look out at the mountains and the national forest, and that’s a relationship that not a lot of other communities have. This is a place where people go hiking and camping and fishing and bike riding in the national forest, or even joy-riding up Highway 33. It’s pretty unique.”
ForestWatch is pressing the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to designate As wilderness two areas on the edges of the existing Matilija Wilderness for protection from development. One is the Dry Lakes Ridge area, which can be reached by an old trail from Highway 33 north of Wheeler Hot Springs, to the east of the existing Matilija wilderness; the other is a smaller chunk of ridge land, called White Ledge, which is further to the south.
“The Forest Service overall did a good job of adding additional protections, under the category of backcountry non-motorized use,” he said. “It’s a step in the right direction, but it still leaves the forest vulnerable to certain kinds of development. For example it still allows for oil drilling, for mining, for logging and for the construction of communications facilities like radio towers.”
Kuyper and his allies would like to see about 4,000 of the 17,000 acres in the Dry Lakes region designated as wilderness, for their extraordinary natural features and unusual plant communities, as well as for their beauty.
“What is unique about the Dry Lakes area and how it got its name is a series of shallow depressions along one of the ridgelines, which collect water during the winter and is dry in the summer,” he said. “This area also includes some of the southernmost stands of ponderosa pines in California, at an altitude of about 4,700 feet.”
Ojai’s David Magney, an environmental consultant who literally wrote a book about this area’s plants in the 1980s as part of his doctoral thesis, supports the idea of expanding the wilderness in the Dry Lakes region.
“I am sympathetic to the idea of a wilderness designation for the Dry Lakes region,” he said. “There’s a stand of Ponderosa pines there that dates back to the Pleistocene era, as well as some other unique plants. These are really big pines. There used to be a campground there, but it was abandoned due to budget cutbacks I think in the Reagan era.”
Also visible from Highway 33 is the area known as White Ledge, whose rocky outcrops can be seen on a tall peak to the west, near Rancho Matilija. Kuyper and his allies would like to see this smaller area recommended for a wilderness designation as well.
Only Congress can make such a designation final, but if the Forest Service recommends a land for wilderness, it is protected until Congress acts on the application.
In the draft of a new land management plan for the four Southern California National Forests, which is open for public comment until May 16, the Forest Service designated one percent of existing lands in the Los Padres National Forest for wilderness in their preferred plan. Much more land was recommended for wilderness from the other forests — from a low of 37 percent in the San Bernardino Forest to a high of 59 percent in the Angeles National Forest. But, this reflects the fact that much lower percentages of land in the more urbanized forests are designated as wilderness at present — 48 percent of Los Padres is designated as wilderness under existing land use management, where only 12 percent of the Angeles National Forest is designated.
In its discussion of the Dry Lakes area, in an appendix to the draft plan, the Forest Service stated that one-third of the area was of the highest scenic value, with “landscapes (that) have strong positive attributes of variety, unity, vividness, mystery, intactness, order, harmony, uniqueness, pattern and balance.” The report noted the Ortega Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) trail at a lower elevation, but added that a smaller portion of the Dry Lakes area could be set aside as wilderness without interfering with the existing OHV trail.
“The trail would need to be closed or the wilderness boundary drawn to exclude the trail leaving a remainder that is reduced in sized and suitability for wilderness,” the report notes.
Bob Hawkins, the project manager for the report on the four forests, said that the final report will be written over the summer and will reflect public opinion. Sue Exline, Ojai’s USFS district ranger, pointed out that the Forest Service is pressured both by conservation groups and off-road use groups.
“Certainly this is what the whole process is about,” Hawkins said. “When we get all the comments in, we will weigh them in the production of the final draft decision, but we will have one last pre-decisional process this year, with 60 days to receive comments.”
Hawkins expects a final report next spring. In the meantime, Kuyper, Magney and Exline all would like to see more visitation to the potential wilderness areas in question. According to the draft report, visitation in the Los Padres National Forest has declined slightly from the year 2000, although Kuyper said that his group hears many less formal recent reports of renewed interest in the backcountry.
“We’re thrilled when people go out and enjoy and visit and explore the Los Padres National Forest,” Kuyper said. “That’s how people develop an appreciation for these lands, and want to protect them.”
For Magney, it’s simpler. He recommends people “Check it out,” speaking of the Dry Lakes region. “The trail is being restored by volunteers. It’s steep, but you’ll go through several different plant communities to get there. It’s definitely walkable. I’ve been there over a hundred times, even though I still haven’t camped there.”