ANAHEIM — Appearances can be deceiving. There are no hiking trails or designated camping areas in Coal Canyon. The main entrance right off the Riverside Freeway is gated and locked.
But if you're quiet, the residents of this bastion of wildlife can be heard scuttling through the brush. Lizards, snakes and rabbits cross paths while a lone hawk circling the sky emits a cry. Occasionally, a mountain lion can be seen meandering through the canyon on its way to Chino Hills.
Then there's the flora. Carpeting the hillsides are oaks, sycamores and chaparral. A pink-flowered herb that is a candidate for listing as an endangered species grows here, not to mention the northernmost range of rare Tecate cypress trees.
This tranquil setting is the turf over which environmentalists and hunters are tussling.
The state Fish and Game Commission is expected to decide today whether to declare the area an ecological reserve and list it as a hunting site. Nine other areas throughout the state are also up for ecological reserve status.
Named for a coal mine in the canyon that operated from 1876 to 1878, Coal Canyon is a 952-acre area off the Riverside Freeway. Local hunters, backed by Fish and Game staff, say that hunting would provide recreational opportunities without significantly reducing the wildlife population. Opponents of the proposal contend that continued and publicized hunting would deter hikers and nature study groups from coming into the area.
"Hunting serves a purpose of keeping wildlife in balance with the habitat, especially if you have herds over there that proliferate," said Lanny Clavecilla, a Fish and Game spokesman. "Whether you like it or not, it does serve a purpose."
But opponents say hunting cannot coexist with nature study and the preservation of rare plant species.
"If you've got hunters in the area, other individuals would probably be intimidated if they think there are hunters in the shrubs," said Gordon Ruser, a spokesman for the Sierra Club. "At this point in time, we're not even sure if other groups would be allowed in there during hunting season. That's the unknown part. Would there be a safety factor considered?"
Hunting is not specifically prohibited in Coal Canyon now, but few hunters go there because it is relatively unknown and difficult to enter. Opponents argue that designating the area as an ecological reserve open for hunting would bring in a swarm of hunters attracted by its listing in Fish and Game publications.
If the Fish and Game Commission gives the go-ahead, hunters will be allowed to hunt game birds such as quail, pheasant and pigeons, as well as tree squirrels and cottontail rabbits. They will be restricted to using only shotguns and bows, said Ron Regehr, a 51-year-old Huntington Beach resident who has been hunting for 44 years. Regehr, a member of the California Sportsmen's Task Force, spoke in favor of the plan at the Fish and Game Commission's Oct. 6 and 7 meeting in Palm Springs.
"I'd like to see this area kept open for hunting," Regehr said. "I think hunters are probably the best ecologists, because it's in our best interests to maintain a viable habitat. Habitat loss is the No. 1 cause of game deprivation."
Part of the controversy stems from the property's acquisition. The Fish and Game Commission purchased the area in March, 1991, from private corporations. About $4 million in parks and wildlife bond money from Proposition 70, the California Wildlife, Coastal and Park Land Conservation Act, paid for the land.
Hunting opponents say that since it was paid for by taxpayers, everyone should be allowed within Coal Canyon without the fear of hunters.
"We're concerned we'll be kept out during hunting season," the Sierra Club's Ruser said. "We want the Fish and Game Department to guarantee access so we can have tour groups go in there for bird watching or nature study. We want it safe for school kids to go in there."
Fish and Game officials say they believe safety will not be an issue.
"As far as hunting safety, California has the (best) hunting safety record," Clavecilla said. "We issue 350 licenses a year, and there have been no fatalities reported for the past two years."
While hunters are interested primarily in the wildlife, others are also enthusiastic about the rare plants found in the canyon.
"We've got a number of plant species that are of special concern," said Larry Sitton, a biologist with the Department of Fish and Game. "The Tecate cypress is a very special tree. This is the northernmost range. To find the next population, you have to go down to San Diego, and then as you go down into Mexico, you find it more and more."