Four national forests in Southern California—home to condors, arroyo toads and other rare species—will benefit from an agreement announced today between conservationists, the state of California, off-road vehicle users and the U.S. Forest Service to protect more than 1 million acres of roadless areas from development. The agreement is awaiting approval by federal district court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel.
The deal concludes a federal case brought by conservation groups challenging Forest Service management plans for four Southern California national forests that failed to assess cumulative damage to the forests caused by road, trail and unauthorized route construction in pristine roadless areas. The challenged plans designated more than 900,000 roadless acres for possible road building or other development. In 2009 a federal district court agreed with the groups, ruling that the plans violated the National Environmental Policy Act. The parties agreed to negotiate a settlement.
More than 1 million acres of roadless areas within the Angeles, Los Padres, Cleveland and San Bernardino national forests are surrounded by some of the most rapidly urbanizing areas in the United States.
Under the agreement, federal and state agencies, conservationists and ORV users will work together to improve and protect the roadless areas. The Forest Service will reconsider protecting several of the areas permanently as wilderness. Parties will identify roads and trails that are degrading roadless areas; the Forest Service will prioritize these for decommissioning and restoration. While the agency reconsiders the management plans, it will protect all roadless areas from harmful activities, including those that could prevent them from being recommended as wilderness in the future.
The environmental groups represented by Earthjustice attorneys Erin Tobin and Trent Orr in the suit are the Center for Biological Diversity, Los Padres ForestWatch, Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, California Native Plant Society, California Wilderness Coalition and The Wilderness Society.
“Under this agreement some of the most wild and pristine areas of Southern California’s national forests will be better protected from potential damage,” said Ileene Anderson, a Center for Biological Diversity biologist. “These areas provide critically important strongholds for endangered species such as steelhead, California condors and arroyo toad; especially during this time of climate change.”
Earthjustice attorney Erin Tobin said, “Southern Californians need and want wild areas, wildlife, healthy forests and clean drinking water. That’s what these national forests have to offer and they will be better protected going forward because of the agreement we’ve reached.”
Kim Delfino, the California program director for Defenders of Wildlife said, “California’s national forests are some of the last remaining wild places in our state, and smart planning is essential to protecting the forests’ resources, especially vital wildlife habitat.”
“John Muir called for the protection of all wild places,” said Joyce Burk of the Sierra Club's Southern California Forests Committee. “We are a step closer to protecting some of Southern California’s wild places with this agreement.”
“As the Southern California population pushes past 15 million, wild lands are even more critical to the region because they provide drinking water, clean air and outdoor recreation,” said Annette Kondo, spokeswoman for The Wilderness Society’s California office. “Any additional wilderness will be a life-enhancing gift for future families."
The Forest Service revised plans for the four national forests in 2005 in response to a 1998 lawsuit. The revised plans largely ignored an alternative developed by a coalition of conservation groups that would have safeguarded the forests’ unique biological diversity. In 2008, seven groups filed suit over this and several other flaws in the plans.
The four national forests of southern California include more than 3.5 million acres of public land from Big Sur to the Mexican border. The forests host a high diversity of ecosystems, including chaparral, oak woodlands, savannas, deserts and alpine areas. Habitat for sensitive, threatened and endangered animals is significantly affected by poorly managed roads, increasing demands for motorized recreation from the growing populations in Los Angeles and San Diego, oil and gas development; urban infrastructure; and other developmental pressures.
The Los Padres National Forest encompasses nearly 2 million acres in the coastal mountains of central California, stretching from the Big Sur coast to the western edge of Los Angeles County. The Angeles, near Los Angeles, contains 663,000 acres. The San Bernardino includes 665,700 acres and abuts the Inland Empire. The Cleveland includes 420,000 acres in Orange and San Diego counties. Many wildlife species will be affected by the new plans, including the arroyo toad, California condor, California red-legged frog, California spotted owl, least Bell’s vireo, northern goshawk, Santa Ana sucker, Sierra Nevada mountain yellow-legged frog, southern California steelhead trout, southwestern will flycatcher and unarmored three spine stickleback.