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Carving up the forest

October 02, 2005

AFTER FIVE YEARS OF STUDY, the U.S. Forest Service has produced a disappointing plan for the Cleveland National Forest.

While drafting the blueprint for managing Southern California's four national forests -- Angeles, San Bernardino, Los Padres and Cleveland -- as required every 10 to 15 years under federal law, foresters worked to balance competing interests. The plan allows increased oil drilling in Los Padres and opens more forest land to off-road vehicles, even though the Forest Service admits it cannot police the areas already open. But protected wilderness also would increase, and off-roaders got less space than allowed in earlier proposals.

That balance was tipped aside, though, in the plan for Cleveland. Little of the forest was designated as wilderness area, which means proposals for hydroelectric and transportation projects might now go through.

That's all the worse because Cleveland is a unique case among California's national forests. It's the smallest in the state, and already has been reduced in size over the decades, segmented by development into three separate islands. It straddles three large and fast-growing counties -- Orange, Riverside and San Diego.

Swaths of open land are, of course, a temptation for nearby developers and local governments that have run out of space and are pressed to ease traffic and other infrastructure woes. Thus, proposals have cropped up to build a dam in one of Cleveland's most picturesque and pristine canyons, and to run a toll road -- possibly including a 12-mile tunnel that would be the second-longest in the world -- through its hills to connect Riverside County commuters to their jobs in Orange County.

Sadly, federal foresters were under congressional pressure to revise the plan to favor hydroelectric projects. Yet Cleveland's size and location among three congested counties makes it all the more important to preserve the forest for the millions of people who live less than an hour away and who crave an oasis of greenery. This forest can ill afford to be carved up even more.

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