National Forest Blueprint Tries to Balance Interests

http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-forest24sep24,1,7487231.story

National Forest Blueprint Tries to Balance Interests

Plan preserves more land as wilderness but doesn’t rule out development elsewhere.
By Sara Lin, Times Staff Writer

A long-awaited U.S. Forest Service plan released Friday preserves an additional 87,000 acres of parkland in Southern California’s four national forests from development, but doesn’t eliminate the possibility of a toll road, hydroelectric plant and continued oil drilling on other parklands.

The new blueprint for managing some of the most intensely used public forests in the nation has been shaped over four years through lobbying efforts by environmentalists, off-road enthusiasts and others.

By law, the federal government must update its management plan for the forests every 10 to 15 years.

Forest Service officials said their plan balances conservation needs with the growing recreational demands of the 8 million people who annually visit the 3.5 million acres of the Angeles, Cleveland, San Bernardino and Los Padres national forests.

The number of visitors is expected to increase by 20% in 15 years, putting added pressure on the parks’ resources.

“Everyone was not going to get what they wanted,” said Matt Mathes, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

For instance, the plan opens new sections of backcountry to all-terrain vehicles, but the 740,000 acres of parkland zoned for off-road enthusiasts in the plan represents a sharp reduction from the original proposal — a reflection of public outcry.

Still, off-road advocates said Forest Service officials recognized the growing demand for alternative forms of recreation.

“Certainly we’d welcome the agency looking at increasing the amount of off-highway vehicles recreation on federal lands,” said Don Amador, California representative of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, an off-road group.

Under the new guidelines, about 1.2 million acres of national forest land in Southern California will be protected wilderness, where only hikers and people on horseback can venture. The additional amount of preserved land is nearly twice the size of Catalina Island.

But environmentalists said they were disappointed that more of the forest was not designated as wilderness areas — especially property in the Cleveland National Forest in Orange County, where a toll road and hydroelectric plant have been proposed, and in Los Padres National Forest in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, where oil drilling is a possibility under a plan approved in July.

“These forests are the last big natural open spaces left … the [Forest Service] is forgoing the strongest protection available to protect that land,” said Bill Corcoran, senior regional representative for the Sierra Club. “They just missed that opportunity.”

The forest plan merely recognizes that Southern California’s needs and desires for its public lands could change over time, Forest Service spokesman Mathes said.

“These plans have to be forward-looking,” he said. “It would be unprofessional, and frankly irresponsible, to close the door on something that humans may desperately need five to 10 years from now.”

Though the new guidelines are regarded as the official game plan on forest management for the next two decades, individual development projects would still have to go through several layers of federal approval.

It takes an act of Congress to permanently protect wilderness areas, and only portions of existing wilderness areas have this permanent protection.

The clash between environmentalists and development interests over the forest management plan is inevitable, said Sean Hecht, executive director of the Environmental Law Center at UCLA.

“I don’t think there’s a single right answer, it’s a question of values: what is it that we want to do with our public lands and how those choices are made,” Hecht said.

Throughout much of the 20th century, Hecht said, the Forest Service had been largely focused on harvesting resources like timber and minerals from its national parks space.

In the last 20 to 30 years, he said, public sentiment shifted toward preservation and environmentalism.

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