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Officials Detail Plans to Close Much of San Bernardino Forest

Outdoors: Most of the mountainous areas in Southern California could be off limits because of fire danger. Some campsites, picnic areas will stay open.

October 04, 2002|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federal forest officials laid out detailed plans Thursday for shutting down much of the San Bernardino National Forest, calling it a drastic step forced by rare drought conditions and the enormous threat of wind-swept wildfires.

By the end of next week, virtually all of Southern California's popular national forests--nearly 2 million acres of soaring peaks, chaparral and timber stands that provide a mountainous escape from urban areas--could be shut down or placed under severe restrictions, officials said.

The closures began last week when the U.S. Forest Service closed the Angeles National Forest for the first time since 1993 after a raging wildfire erupted above the San Gabriel and Pomona valleys and blanketed the region with smoke. Today, federal officials plan to shut down most of the neighboring San Bernardino National Forest.

Next week, officials will consider implementing similar restrictions in the Cleveland National Forest, which includes giant chunks of Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties. Authorities there said they anticipate that restrictions similar to those in the San Bernardino National Forest will eventually be in place, but they emphasized that a decision has not been reached.

Even in Los Padres National Forest, farther north, closer to the coast and more buffered from the drastic conditions in the southern reaches of the state, officials say they may have to eventually consider similar closures.

"We're keeping an eye on conditions," said Los Padres spokeswoman Kathy Good. "We're not there yet. But we could get there."

Regardless of what happens at the Cleveland and Los Padres forests, officials say, it is an extraordinary year. Several government measuring sites have detected less precipitation this year than any year in more than a century, and firefighters say blazes are burning with particular ferocity this season.

"As an agency, we are profoundly sorry to have to do this. There is really no other way to say it," Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes said of the forest closures.

"We are all recreationists. We think we can understand how people feel about this. But we are entering into the most dangerous time of year in Southern California with the Santa Ana winds.... Anything we can do to reduce the risk of wildfires and protect the public will be a good move in the long run."

Though the response from mountain residents and outdoors enthusiasts has been understanding for the most part, San Bernardino National Forest managers exercised some damage control Thursday by emphasizing the wilderness spots that will remain open, not those that will close.

Beginning at noon today, officials said, most remote areas of the 671,686-acre forest will be off-limits to hikers, horseback riders, hunters, mountain bikers and others.

However, the Forest Service said it will allow use of many campsites and other areas that are near good roads that are easily accessible to firefighters. Most sites within a quarter-mile of state highways and county roads will stay open, officials said.

Remaining open in the Big Bear area, for example will be the Big Bear Discovery Center, the Serrano and Pineknot campgrounds, and the Meadows Edge, Grout Bay and Aspen Glen picnic areas. At Lake Arrowhead, the Dogwood Campground and the Baylis, Crest Park and Switzer picnic areas also will stay open.

Towns will also remain open, so a family planning a weekend at Idyllwild, for instance, can still access hotels, restaurants and stores.

Even a handful of paths and trails--those near heavily populated areas and good roads--will still be accessible.

The Woodland Trail in Big Bear, the Rock Camp Trail at Lake Arrowhead and the famed Ernie Maxwell Trail in Idyllwild will remain open, officials said. So will the Lytle Creek Shooting Area.

But as for a long wilderness hike through the national forest, "that's not going to happen," said Karen McKinley, a San Bernardino National Forest trails coordinator. "It impacts a lot of things when you do this," McKinley said. "It's pretty serious. There are so many private [companies] and communities that depend upon the recreationists economically. But you've got to weigh that with the fire danger."

Forestry officials don't expect to lift the restrictions until the area gets about 2 inches of rain.

That typically occurs in mid-November, they said, though it's possible that the restrictions could remain in place until the end of the year.

Hunters will be particularly hard-hit by the closures. Bow-hunting season is already underway in most regions, and the gun-hunting deer season begins in mid-October in most areas.

Officials at California Department of Fish and Game offices across the region were already trying to provide upset hunters with alternative spots, such as U.S. Bureau of Land Management land that is outside the national forests, where they can go.

"We have to assume that the Forest Service is doing what they are doing for a reason," said Mike McBridge, senior enforcement officer for Fish and Game's Eastern Sierra-Inland Deserts Region. "We are living with the fact that it's their decision to make."

Ironically, the Los Padres National Forest may be affected more than any other area by the closures because officials there are bracing for big crowds spilling over from closed areas to the south.

"We don't know how much of an increase in use to anticipate as a result of these other closures," Good said. "And we just want people to remember that we are in the middle of fire season here too."

Already, Good said, campfires and barbecues have been outlawed throughout the 1.76-million-acre Los Padres National Forest, as they have at Southern California's other national forests.

*

Times staff writers David McKibben and Amanda Covarrubias contributed to this report.

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