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California and the West

California Is Losing 100 Acres of Wilderness a Day, Study Says

Environment: Report warns of human encroachment in national forests. U.S. agency says group is not telling 'whole story.'


A study by an environmental group released Wednesday concludes that California national forests are losing their last stretches of wild lands at the rate of nearly 100 acres a day.

Logging roads, motorcycles and other human encroachment threaten remaining wilderness-caliber lands that shelter wildlife and provide refuge for an increasingly urban populace, according to a report by the California Wilderness Coalition.

In the last 19 years, development has touched 675,449 acres that the U.S. Forest Service had identified as roadless and wilderness-caliber in 1979--a loss of 11%, the study concluded. The figures do not include land formally designated as protected wilderness.

At that rate, all the state's remaining forest wild lands will be degraded or gone by the end of the 21st century, members of the group contend.

But Janice Gauthier, spokeswoman for the Forest Service's Pacific Southwest region, said many of the areas that the report counted as lost are within the 1.8 million acres that Congress has allowed to be designated for uses ranging from logging to mining to road-building. She ascribed the agency's differences with the wilderness coalition as "philosophical disagreement."

"There's nothing illegal and there's no scandal. I'm not sure they told the whole story," Gauthier said.

The study shows that getting away from it all is becoming increasingly difficult in the nation's most populous state. The portrait contained in the report by the Davis-based Wilderness Coalition shows that as California's population surges, more people will be forced to share a shrinking amount of open, untrammeled mountain country.

"These are California's last wild places," said Paul Spitler, executive director of the coalition, which represents California's leading environmental groups. "We can't bring back the wilderness we've already lost, but by acting now, we can save what little remains."

Human impact on wild lands in the 18 national forests within California's borders are distributed unevenly, with development pressing hard into Southern California's mountains while largely skirting remote forests such as the Siskiyou in the north. The landscapes at risk include chaparral slopes in Ventura, timbered peaks near Lake Tahoe and the rain forests east of Eureka.

No forest has lost more roadless acreage than the Los Padres National Forest, a sprawling 1.8-million-acre expanse of public land stretching from Carmel to Gorman. Development and off-road vehicle use has reached about 130,000 acres that were once roadless, according to the report.

Ojai resident Alisdair Coyne, conservation director of Keep the Sespe Wild Committee, says he has long enjoyed relaxing hikes deep in Los Padres. Yet in recent years, he has encountered more off-road vehicles. Lockwood Valley west of Frazier Park has been particularly hard hit, he said, as have areas around San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria.

"They're letting off-roaders go wherever they want, and that's a shame," Coyne said.

But California's heavily forested northwest has seen more encroachment than any other region, principally from logging roads, which have been built on nearly 248,921 acres of national forest land. That development accounts for more than a third of all the wild land losses identified in the study.

The 340-page report, titled "California's Vanishing Forests: Two Decades of Destruction," is the first comprehensive inventory of California's national forest wild lands in nearly 20 years.

Release of the document could increase pressure on the Clinton administration to impose a moratorium on road building in California's national forests. Environmentalists seek a total ban on new road construction, although the Forest Service's current proposal would exempt much of northwest California. A decision on whether to impose an interim moratorium is expected in November.


Taming Forests

More than 675,000 acres of the state's national forests have been significantly touched by development since 1979, according to the California Wilderness Coalition. Following are the forests in Southern California and acreage affected in each.

Angeles: 9,818

Cleveland: 750

Los Padres: 130,067

San Bernardino: 22,000

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