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CalWild Team Explores and Dives Deep on the Cleveland National Forest

By Ryan Henson, Policy Director

Reflections on a visit to the Cleveland National Forest

In December of last year two CalWild staff took a 10-day tour of the Cleveland National Forest (CNF) in order to get to know it better and to personally see some of the management challenges it faces. This is important because CalWild has a long-term goal of protecting the CNF from development and of winning more resources for the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to better care for the area and to provide for sustainable, high-quality public access and recreation. The tour was quite a revelation and provided us with a lot of great information that we can hopefully use over time.

The CNF is the smallest and southernmost of California’s 18 National Forests at 465,000 acres (over 726 square-miles). The CNF begins in San Diego County a mere five air-miles north of the border with Mexico and extends north into Orange and Riverside counties, 103 air-miles to the northwest. The National Forest is not a continuous strip of land, but is divided  into three “ranger districts” separated by mostly developed private lands. The districts are known as the Descanso, Palomar, and Trabuco Ranger Districts (RD).

The CNF in many areas is a bastion of undeveloped wildness in a sea of urban development. Indeed, while we have not conducted an analysis to prove it, we suspected during our tour that the CNF had more “urban interface” than any National Forest in California (in this case, urban interface is where developed areas abut the National Forest).  While there are also Bureau of Land Management (BLM) parcels on the eastern side of the CNF and many county parks on the western side, the Cleveland still makes up the majority of the remaining open space in San Diego and Orange counties. This makes the CNF a critically important refuge for species of plants and wildlife that cannot tolerate development or other industrial disturbances.

Indeed, the CNF is home to almost 500 wildlife species, including about 200 resident and migrant bird species, and more than 1,750 plant species. Over 25 of these species are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, including the Southern California steelhead trout, arroyo toad, California gnatcatcher, Quino checkerspot butterfly, and slender-horned spineflower among others.

As the primary source of local open space for San Diego, the eighth-largest city in the US and the second-largest city in California, the CNF estimates that over 641,000 people visit the Forest to hike, camp, sightsee, hunt, fish, enjoy scenic driving, bicycle, horseback ride, picnic, swim, or enjoy other types of recreation annually.

The CNF, like California’s other National Forests, was established primarily to protect sources of water for agricultural and urban uses. The USFS estimates that the CNF produces 77,000 acre-feet of water per year, or over twenty-five billion gallons. This is enough drinking water to provide for California’s population for over two years.

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, what is now the CNF was home to the Tipai, Ipal, Cahuilla, Luseño, Gabrieleño, Serrano, and Tataviam peoples. Today, San Diego County has more “federally-recognized” Tribes (Tribes that the federal government has agreed to acknowledge and consult with on a government-to-government basis) than any other county in America. The CNF lists 22 federally-recognized Tribes as having an interest in the area. There are a multitude of plants, wildlife, individual places, and other resources of great cultural value to Tribes in the CNF.

Despite its world-class ecological, water, cultural, and recreation values, the CNF has long suffered from a multitude of threats, including grossly inadequate funding from Congress, human-caused fires in such numbers that native ecosystems are threatened, illegal recreation such as off-trail vehicle use, trespass marijuana grows, dam construction, road construction, and utility development. CalWild and our local partners will be working hard in the coming years to reduce or eliminate these development threats and to win more resources for the USFS to effectively steward the CNF.

While visiting the Trabuco RD in the Santa Ana Mountains of Orange and Riverside counties, we were struck by the still-intact nature of much of the native shrubland. This shrubland, known as “chaparral,” is the dominant plant community on the CNF. The Trabuco’s chaparral was most often dominated by the oily, shiny needles of the chamise shrub, but manzanita, scrub oak, ceanothus, and silk-tassel bush were also common. Small groves of bigcone Douglas-fir also grow in the Trabuco Ranger District. This species is unique to southwestern California and, as the name implies, its cone is 3-4 times larger than the Douglas fir that grows elsewhere in California. While the tree has evolved to be hardy in the face of occasional fires, the species is terribly threatened by excessive numbers of human-caused fires. While walking in the Trabuco, we spoke to a local hospital technician who told us that, after working 50 hours in the emergency room, the first thing he does at the end of his week is go on a long run in the CNF. He said taking the run in the CNF, and experiencing nature, is an essential part of dealing with the stress of work and life. For him, the CNF is a priceless resource for his wellbeing.

While visiting the portions of the CNF along the Ortega Highway (State Route 74), we were struck by the fact that all of the USFS campgrounds and other developed areas were clean and well-maintained — virtually free of trash and graffiti, which are both a common blight for Forests that are located so close to urban areas. We also saw aggressive but not excessive fire risk reduction work – smaller plants were removed and larger plants and trees were trimmed within about 100 feet of paved roads within the CNF. We also noted that a CNF campground was being used by the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) as a base of operations for training. This reminded us that the CNF is used widely by both the USMC and U.S. Navy for survival training and other purposes.

We were impressed by the rich streamside habitats in and near the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness. It was clear that these streams were oases for wildlife in what is blasting hot country in summer. Amazingly, the CNF hosts California’s southernmost population of steelhead trout. This species, historically found throughout the state but currently far more common in northwestern California and the Pacific Northwest, lives in the Pacific Ocean but spawns in the shaded canyons of San Mateo Creek in the CNF. As we stood near one of San Mateo Creek’s feeder streams it seemed a miracle that steelhead trout could live in such a relatively dry place. The sycamore trees along the stream with their gleaming golden fall colors were truly magnificent.

The Palomar Ranger District was quite different from Trabuco. Here, a species of shrub unique to the region called redshank often dominates the landscape. Redshank is a very tall shrub with reddish bark that always seems to be peeling. This leads to its nickname, “ribbonwood.” The Caliente Proposed Wilderness (an area that the USFS recommended to Congress for protection as wilderness in 2014) was dominated by redshank, yucca, and manzanita. We hiked on the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (known as the PCT) that starts at the border with Mexico and runs all the way to Canada some 2,663 miles away. 110 miles of the PCT are in the CNF and the route offers a delightful way to experience several different portions of the Forest.

6,140-foot Palomar Mountain itself was truly a wonder. Its higher elevations hosted bigcone Douglas-fir, black oak, incense cedar, and Coulter pine. The latter species has the world’s heaviest cones and does not grow north of Big Sur. The views from atop Palomar Mountain of the surrounding region were incredible. Unfortunately, like so much of the CNF, even this remote place was riddled with urbanized private lands. We were struck by the extensive fire-risk mitigation work the USFS was conducting in the Palomar Ranger District. It was clear that the agency is very concerned about the possible loss of these high-altitude forests to human-caused fires. We shared this concern as we admired these beautiful forests.

We noted the relatively low-impact of the USFS’ recent fire risk reduction work in the Palomar RD. While there was an extremely wide fuelbreak on Aguanga Ridge that was causing soil erosion, the spread of non-native grasses, and allowing for illegal off-road vehicle use, most of the recent fuel reduction projects we saw were much narrower, more carefully designed, and even spared many of the largest redshank shrubs. The fuel reduction work in the forested portion of the District was quite well done and appeared to be designed to not only reduce fire risk, but also to hasten the development of larger (and thus more fire resistant) trees over time.

The Descanso Ranger District was also a wonder. The San Diego River originates in the CNF and its deep and rugged canyon and those of its feeder streams like Cedar Creek form a very wild part of the CNF. In 2014, the CNF approved a Land and Resource Management Plan that recommended to Congress that most of the USFS parcels in the watershed be designated as wilderness. Until Congress can act on this recommendation, the USFS will manage the lands as though they are designated as wilderness.

While visiting this portion of the CNF, we saw seven raptors (birds of prey such as hawks, falcons, and eagles) in six miles of driving. That is highly unusual and helps explain why the most prominent landmark in the area is called Eagle Peak. The San Diego River canyon is so deep that we were never able to see the bottom. Sadly, excessive numbers of human-caused fires are impacting the area, but there were still extensive patches of mature and remarkably diverse chaparral, lovely oak woodlands (some of the finest that we had seen in the CNF), native grasses, and even an occasional Cuyamaca cypress, a small, fragrant, shrubby tree that is confined to this part of San Diego County. Interestingly, there is no redshank here.

We were reminded by signs that the San Diego River Parkway Foundation has been helping to prevent development on key private lands adjacent to the CNF in the San Diego River watershed. The Parkway Foundation also helps the USFS support existing recreation opportunities in the area as well such as by maintaining trailheads.

The southwestern portion of the Descanso Ranger District around Hauser Mountain is dominated by chamise chapparal. We joked that this part of the CNF was “America’s strategic chamise reserve.” The composition of the chaparral grows more diverse as elevations increase to the northeast and the summit of 6,000-foot Laguna Mountain. This portion of the CNF contains several segments of the PCT. An especially popular segment starts at Kitchen Creek Road on the southern slopes of Laguna Mountain. The Laguna Recreation Area is one of the most popular areas on the CNF for hiking, picnicking, sightseeing, camping, and cycling. The area occasionally offers San Diego County’s only real opportunities for snow play. One of the most fascinating aspects of this portion of the CNF is to see how the land and plant life transition from the coastal mountains to the Colorado Desert. The eastern slopes of Laguna Mountain plunge for thousands of feet to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

While the CNF is California’s smallest National Forest, our tour left us in no doubt that it must be one of the hardest to protect and properly manage. We were struck by the Forest Service’s efforts to properly steward the CNF despite a lack of resources. This included an extremely impressive anti-litter effort, a very active fire risk mitigation program, several encounters with CNF staff who were working in the field, and the continued high-level of maintenance of sites like the lovely Dripping Springs Trailhead and Campground, the very pleasant Blue Jay Campground, and the scenic Inaja Memorial day-use area. It was also a shame to see the many roads, utilities, and other developments that have fragmented the CNF. It is time for the Cleveland to get the funding and protection that it and the people who love it deserves.