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Big Proposals Target a Small U.S. Forest

The Cleveland National could see power lines, a pipeline and a major highway.

March 17, 2003|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

It is a patchwork wilderness tucked among fast-growing California counties, and everybody wants a piece.

As the Cleveland National Forest undergoes a 15-year management plan update, all kinds of ideas are on the map. They include blasting a highway through the mountains, draping a 500,000-volt power line along its eastern flank, and generating power -- and profits -- by pumping water up its slopes.

All national forests are increasingly under pressure to balance competing demands, such as the need for oil and the protection of endangered species. But the Cleveland forest, already cut into three pieces and hemmed in by the suburbs of Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties, is one of the nation's smallest. There is more at stake here because there is so little left, and everyone from the Bush administration to backwoods residents has a vision of what should or should not be done.

"It's a very high-pressure zone of urban development," said Anne Fege, Cleveland's supervisor.

To some, that makes water, power and road projects a necessity.

"The jobs are in Orange County, and the houses are in Riverside [County]," said John Licata, public works director for commuter-clogged Corona. He and other officials say the only answer is a road or tunnel through the forest to siphon off traffic. "You either have to go through it, over it or under it -- but it's got to go through the Cleveland National Forest."

To others, however, population growth makes the forest all the more precious.

"It's the tiniest national forest in California, and it's surrounded by millions of people," said Elin Motherhead, member of a Riverside County group battling the power line and dam projects. "Any change allowing development is a horrid idea.... Where else are all these people going to go when they want to hike, or bike, or just stand there and say, 'Wow, this is what it looked like before there were people here?' "

Individual projects will not be approved during the forest management plan update, which is scheduled to be finished in late 2004 along with plans for the larger Angeles, San Bernardino and Los Padres national forests. But zoning to allow those projects could be included -- and with six alternate maps being considered, many predict that any decision will be challenged in court.

"I really sympathize with the Forest Service," said Mike Boeck, a longtime forest resident on the Orange County side. "People want to build hydroelectric dams. People want to build roads. People want to go motocrossing. People want wilderness areas. They're smack dab in the middle of this, and no matter what they do, I guarantee you some group will sue."

Formed in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt as a 2-million-acre reserve stretching southeast of Anaheim all the way to Mexico, the forest has since been whittled down to about 427,000 acres hopscotching over freeways, military bases and towns. More than 830,000 visitors use it for recreation each year.

The Cleveland National Forest, like all others, wasn't originally intended to be a park. It was designed to provide clean water and a steady supply of timber. But over the years, recreation and wildlife protection have been added to the missions of the forest -- labeled "Land of many uses" by the federal government.

The forest's northern third is the focus of most proposals, thanks to suburban sprawl on both sides. Orange County's housing tracts are nibbling at the western edge. On the east side, Inland Empire commuters fume in heavy traffic on the Riverside Freeway in the shadow of the imposing Santa Ana Mountains, which block easy passage to coastal jobs.

Lush With Life

The forest today is a rumpled green blanket of stony peaks and plunging clefts. Golden eagles, mountain lions and scores of other species -- including 22 that are endangered -- roam the chaparral-covered mountains.

Like any urban oasis, the Cleveland forest bears harsh signs of civilization in spots. Graffiti is scrawled on the rocks above the scenic Ortega waterfalls. The body of Samantha Runnion, the 5-year-old Stanton girl abducted and killed in July, was found on the forest's South Main Divide Road last summer.

Retired firefighter Mike Palmer owns a 30-acre ranch in the heart of the forest. His mother is buried next to an ancient Indian cooking site there. "This is the only thing the Indians did to the Earth -- made a few holes in the granite," he said, showing stones smoothed by hands hundreds of years ago.

Now, the Palmers shoo brightly clad Ninja motorcyclists off their land. Recreational vehicle drivers have emptied waste tanks at their front gate. When the Palmers head to town, they dodge tractor-trailers roaring down the tortuous two-lane Ortega Highway loaded with construction materials blasted out of the foothills.

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