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Eating Away at the Forests

March 28, 2003

Some people regard the last large, undeveloped sweep of fragrant sage and wild canyons between two dense tangles of suburban development and think: How idyllic. Others see the perfect place to blast a tunnel road, set down a power plant, dam a pristine canyon or hang power lines.

The pressures of growth creeping to the edges of the Cleveland National Forest make it a tempting target for projects to relieve traffic and add power capacity, pushed by Riverside County officials, businesses, you name it. Yet unrelieved development demands also make the open-land oasis all that more worth preserving.

Suburban subdivisions and office parks cluster on the forest's flanks. On the eastern side are the affordable-housing tracts of Riverside County. To the west lie the well-paid jobs of Orange County. How to connect all those workers to all that work? One proposal calls for a multibillion-dollar tunnel through the mountains, an undertaking of such exorbitant expense that few expect it to happen. If the money were available, it would be better used in building affordable homes closer to those jobs.

Short of a tunnel, Riverside County officials would carve a highway through the forest, cutting through the highest country of the Santa Ana mountains. Other visions for the forest include a water-pumping project, 28-mile power transmission line and hydroelectric dam. All these will be considered as the U.S. Forest Service updates its 15-year management plans for the four forests in Southern California. (To participate in the process, go to www.r5.fs.fed.us/sccs.)

The Forest Service also is looking into opening thousands more acres of the Los Padres National Forest to oil development, an ill-advised move. But Los Padres is a giant wilderness compared with the Cleveland forest, which has been whittled down over the years and segmented into three island-like areas. It's the smallest national forest in California, yet 20 million people live within a few hours' drive. It is home to 22 endangered species.

Reps. Ken Calvert (R-Riverside) and Darrell E. Issa (R-Vista) have introduced legislation that would force the Forest Service to create a designated area for the proposed power line. Political patronage is no way to plan a forest's future. There should be an objective, scientific analysis on how these projects would affect the forest and the 800,000 people who visit each year.

The nonstop growth surrounding the Cleveland will bring ever more creative proposals on behalf of suburban needs. If the Forest Service doesn't decisively concentrate now on wildlife and recreation, the Cleveland will not survive development demands.

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