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Forest Closing Disappoints Hunters as Fire Threat Interrupts Fall Ritual

Many favored spots are suddenly off limits as Forest Service moves to limit risk of new blazes.

October 13, 2002|Deborah Sullivan Brennan | Special to The Times

Mark Shulz eagerly awaited the opening of deer season this fall--the first year he and his two grown sons would hunt together.

His sons had planned the trip for months, scouting their favorite spots, securing deer and bear tags, and surprising their dad with a new rifle recently on his 47th birthday.

But on Oct. 3, just two days before the opening of deer season, the U.S. Forest Service announced the closing of the San Bernardino National Forest, including some of the most popular deer-hunting zones in Southern California. Another deer-hunting region in the San Bernardino Mountains that was set to open today will remain closed as well.

Severe drought and Santa Ana winds prompted forest supervisors to shut the lands to the public. The fear is that catastrophic wildfires could trap hunters or hikers in the back country, out of reach of rescue crews. The forests will remain closed until enough rain falls -- at least 2 inches -- to end the high fire threat, federal authorities said.

The closing was a sudden setback to the Shulzes and to more than 12,000 other hunters who purchased deer tags this year, only to find most of the forest suddenly off limits.

"Now we'll lose our money for the licenses. But, for me, the main thing is I'll lose the time together with my sons," said Shulz, a resident of Cherry Valley in northern Riverside County.

"My youngest boy was really disappointed and devastated. He had his heart set on seeing his dad get a deer with his new rifle," Shulz said last week.

Officials of the California Department of Fish and Game, which issues hunting permits, said they learned of the closing just days before the public. Now they're scrambling to exchange deer tags sold for the closed hunting zones for replacement tags in the few forest areas still open in Southern California.

A resident needs one of the $19.95 tags, in addition to a $31 hunting license, to legally hunt for deer in the state.

But authorities said they are fast running out of alternatives for hunters. The Angeles National Forest in Los Angeles County was closed to recreational users in September as the Williams fire scorched the San Gabriel Mountains. On Wednesday, the Cleveland National Forest in Orange County announced that it, too, would close off wilderness areas to the public.

Confusion Over Tags

Farther north, the Los Padres National Forest remains open with extra firefighting staff on hand, but it too could close in the event of an active fire or sustained Santa Ana winds.

As the forests shut down, some hunters exchanged their tags for replacements in other areas, only to see those close down too, said Craig Stowers, deer program coordinator for the Department of Fish and Game.

Nikki Kiriakous, 25, of Mentone in San Bernardino County said she had planned to hunt in the San Bernardino Forest, but switched her tag for an open deer-hunting area in the Cleveland Forest, only to see that area close as well.

"It's really all confusing," Kiriakous said.

Deer-hunting areas are broken down into geographic zones by the state. Though parts of those zones remain open, they tend to be on Bureau of Land Management property outside the national forests that hunters prefer.

"All the hunters that are out of luck might as well have just taken our money and thrown it in that forest fire," said Carl Terrell, 63, of San Bernardino, an avid deer hunter. "We're talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Hunters see signs of an anti-hunting bias in the closings, pointing out that the forests remained open to hikers and campers throughout the summer tourist season, despite devastating wildfires.

Campgrounds and picnic grounds within a quarter of a mile of developed roads remain open now.

"They've managed to leave camping grounds, jeep trails and campsites open in the forest. Why can't they leave some hunting grounds open?" asked Merle Bindner, 47, of Mentone, treasurer of the Southern California chapter of the California Deer Assn.

Forest Service officials say they did not intend to shortchange hunters, but held off on the closings until the last minute in hopes of avoiding them.

But the Williams fire, which sometimes burned against the wind as it raged across more than 38,000 acres of the San Gabriel Mountains late last month, offered an alarming preview of the kind of wildfires that could erupt this fall, they said.

And the continuing drought and Santa Ana winds raise the risk of a new inferno.

"Recently, in the Angeles, we have seen very extreme fire behavior, to the point where we are concerned about our ability to evacuate people from remote areas quickly enough," said Ruth Wenstrom, public affairs officer for the San Bernardino National Forest.

But hunters argue that the Forest Service knew of the conditions long before it announced the closing and should have warned the public of its impending decision.

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