Southern California National Forests in Peril

Lawsuit seeks protections for wildlife and roadless areas


David Hogan, Center for Biological Diversity, (760) 809-9244
Erin Tobin, Earthjustice, (510) 550-6725 

Seven environmental groups filed a lawsuit today over the failure of the U.S. Forest Service to protect wildlife and roadless areas on four Southern California national forests — the Angeles, Cleveland, Los Padres, and San Bernardino. According to the lawsuit, overarching land-management plans prepared by the Forest Service in 2005 do little to protect nature from many harmful activities, including roads, off-road vehicles, power lines, oil and gas, logging, and grazing.

“The national forests of Southern California support a globally significant concentration of wildlife and plants and are a popular destination for millions of people seeking relief from the concrete jungle,” said David Hogan, conservation manager at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Yet the Forest Service ignores these values and treats most of this land as if it were worthy only of development for urban infrastructure or other exploitation.”

Today’s lawsuit follows two other legal challenges over the management plans filed last March. The first, from the state of California, challenges the plans for allowing development of roadless areas; the second, from the Center for Biological Diversity and others, challenges the failure of related “biological opinions” to protect imperiled plant and animal species under the forest plans.

For example, an analysis conducted by the California Wilderness Coalition found that energy development, road construction, and other destructive activities are allowed on over 91 percent of the million acres of pristine roadless land in the four forests with grave consequences for the region’s ecological health, water quality, and nature-based recreation.

The Forest Service revised the forest plans for the four national forests in 2005 after settling a 1998 Center lawsuit. The Forest Service largely ignored a comprehensive conservation alternative developed by the Center and a coalition of other conservation groups during the revision process. That alternative would have put in place protections necessary to safeguard the forests’ unique biological diversity. The Forest Service also rejected the conservation groups’ administrative appeals of the forest plans in early June.

“Instead of managing these forests for the public, who actually own and use this land, the Bush administration plans to axe protections for pristine and scenic landscapes, sacrificing important wildlife habitat for the benefit of a few corporations,” said Kim Delfino, California Program director for Defenders of Wildlife. “It’s sad that this administration continues to think that making big corporations rich is its first responsibility.”

“The Forest Service missed an important opportunity to improve the ecological health of Southern California’s forest ecosystems,” said Erin Tobin, an attorney for Earthjustice who is representing the coalition. “Opening up the most pristine areas to off-road vehicles and resource exploitation, without considering essential habitats and the species that depend on them, is a clear violation of federal environmental law.”

The four national forests of Southern California include over 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. They provide important habitat for numerous sensitive, threatened, and endangered animals. Currently, these areas are 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 almost 220 miles from the Big Sur coast in Monterey County to the western edge of Los Angeles County. The Angeles National Forest is near Los Angeles and contains 663,000 acres. The San Bernardino National Forest includes 665,700 acres, and abuts the Inland Empire. The Cleveland National Forest includes 420,000 acres in Orange and San Diego Counties.

Many species of imperiled wildlife, 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 willow flycatcher, and the unarmored threespine stickleback, will be affected by the new plans. Over 20 million Californians live within one hour’s drive of at least one of these four national forests.

Today’s lawsuit was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Los Padres ForestWatch, Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, California Native Plant Society, California Wilderness Coalition, and The Wilderness Society. The groups are represented in the suit by Earthjustice attorneys Erin Tobin and Trent Orr.

Read the complaint (PDF) 

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