The response by environmentalists and other forest users to the new management plan for Cleveland National Forest raises serious questions about the government's ability to protect the 567,000-acre reserve with a limited budget.
The long-term Land and Resources Management Plan, enacted in June, is based on budgets a third larger than the Cleveland forest officials have had in recent years. And the budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 is expected to be slightly less than this year's.
"We won't be able to do the amount (of work) that's called for," said Mike Rogers, the U.S. Forest Service's top official at Cleveland forest. "The plan is a goal. It gives (us) some desired objectives to aim for."
The new plan is designed to guide use, management and development of the Cleveland forest for the next 10 to 15 years.
Improved roads, an expanded trail system, more developed recreation facilities and wider access for off-road vehicles are among the plan's goals for the national forest, which stretches across Orange, San Diego and eastern Riverside counties.
Six Appeals to Plan
Six written appeals to the plan, ranging from a single-page, handwritten letter to a lengthy critique, are being sent to the U.S. Forest Service chief in Washington, along with replies from Zane G. Smith Jr., Pacific Southwest regional forester.
The formal appeals came from individuals, environmental groups and even a Forest Service biologist, and they covered a wide range of issues:
- The Sierra Club asked that the Sill Hill area in San Diego County's Descanso Ranger District be designated as wilderness to protect its scenic, scientific, educational, historical and habitat value.
- Steve A. Loe, wildlife biologist for the nearby San Bernardino National Forest, asked for stronger protection and monitoring of wildlife populations. "The plans don't describe how the Forest Service and the public are going to manage the plan, to take care of the wildlife" with a limited budget, Loe said in an interview.
- Montague D. Griffin of San Diego claimed that "the Forest Service failed to properly recognize and address recreational issues and needs. . . . Recreation was subordinated to economic return and 'higher priority land and water uses.' " His appeal seeks more study of recreational needs, establishment of two new wilderness areas, a ban on livestock grazing and an expanded trail system.
- John R. Swanson of Berkeley asked the Forest Service to designate 254,000 acres--nearly 45% of the Cleveland's area--as wilderness. "If this very unique and very fragile area is to survive to serve man and all life, this Cleveland National Forest must be established as a permanent preserve," he wrote.
- James W. Smith, representing Mountain Relay Co. of El Cajon, asked for more attention in the plan to communications equipment. "By omission," his appeal states, the plan has made no mention of existing facilities, "nor, as required by law, identified those electronics sites which will be needed in the future."
- The Wildlife Society, a group of professional ecologists and managers, charged that the plan fails "to adequately describe the real budget situation" and its effects on the forest. The group wants "non-essential activities such as providing for increased fuel wood, grazing, recreation and public access" to take a back seat to wildlife monitoring and environmental protection.
"You shouldn't spend money on anything new until you can afford to take care of what you've got," biologist Loe said. "Our wildlife has been pushed to the very limit right now."
Chief Will Decide
After receiving these appeals, Forest Service Chief R. Max Peterson will decide whether to order changes in the management plan, said Susan Marzec, spokeswoman for the Forest Service's regional office in San Francisco.
Officials already are planning to hold meetings on the plan this year with forest users and others, Rogers said, to help establish budget priorities.
"We put the plan together based on what we knew needed to get done," he said.
The plan projects an annual budget of $11.4 million to maintain and improve the forest, significantly higher than last year's $7.8 million and this year's $8.2 million. Although Congress has not yet acted on the Forest Service budget for fiscal 1987, Rogers expects the Cleveland to get about $7.9 million.
In his response to one of the appeals, Smith wrote: "The plan may not be fully implementable at current (1986) budget levels, but it is feasible to begin implementation with current funding." Still, he stated, the slower schedule isn't expected to impede environmental goals.
The forest plan calls for a greatly expanded program of controlled fires to reduce the risk of wildfire and, at the same time, improve wildlife and fish habitats. "We won't be burning the number of acres called for," Rogers predicted.