HIGH atop the Sierra Madre in the Los Padres National Forest, Ray Ford drank in the spectacle around him -- dramatic rock outcroppings, boulders adorned with petroglyphs, slopes cloaked in wilderness, and the sound of not quite silence.
Thwump, thwump, thwump.
The sublime had company, a percussion section supplied by oil wells three miles away in the Cuyama Valley. "It's just this spectacular country," says Ford, author of "Santa Barbara Day Hikes." "When you're up there, you feel like you're on top of the world, yet you can hear those machines."
More of that backbeat could be in the offing for park visitors after a Forest Service decision in July to expand oil and gas drilling on 52,000 acres in the Los Padres forest.
The plan coincides with a confluence of energy-related events, including disruption of oil supplies due to Hurricane Katrina, spiraling gasoline prices and Bush administration attempts to expand energy development.
Conservation groups and the California attorney general have filed administrative appeals to overturn the decision to open the Los Padres forest to more drilling. They say energy development will impact popular hiking trails and fishing spots, wilderness areas and endangered species such as the steelhead trout, arroyo toad and California condor.
Stretching 220 miles from Carmel to Castaic, the forest is a safety valve for the urban pressure cooker, offering remote, rugged wilderness between L.A. and San Francisco. But energy development would be concentrated in some of the most popular recreation areas of the forest, says Jeff Kuyper, executive director of Los Padres ForestWatch. For example, the plan calls for drilling along the first mile of Santa Paula Creek Trail, which leads to campgrounds and swimming holes. The north end of Lake Piru, a fishing hub, is also targeted for new wells. "Slant wells" -- which run laterally underground to tap hard-to-reach oil and gas deposits -- would burrow under the Horn Canyon Trail near Ojai and Santa Paula Creek, which is eligible for Wild and Scenic River status. Opponents worry about spills, leaks and damage to the water table due to slant drilling, but officials say it can be done safely.
Local politicians aren't thrilled with the plan. The Ventura County Board of Supervisors sent a letter to President Bush opposing the decision. Congresswoman Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) and Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel) have authored a bill that would ban more drilling in the Los Padres.
"The amount of oil and gas, the quality of it that's going to be extracted at the cost of the damage that will be done just isn't worth it," says Capps, who acknowledges that her bill has little chance of success in the GOP-led House.
Forest Service officials say that new drilling within three designated "high oil and gas potential areas" -- South Cuyama, Sespe and San Cayetano -- won't harm the environment or recreation. Surface drilling would occur on 8.5% of the 52,000 acres identified for energy exploration, while the rest of the acreage would be accessed by slant drilling. Under the plan, only 1% of the 767,000 acres eligible for energy development in Los Padres National Forest would be available for drilling.
Critics are relieved that the drilling area has been whittled down, but Kuyper says the forest is already pocked with 240 oil wells and doesn't need more pipelines, pump jacks and access roads. "We think the Forest Service needs to do a better job of reducing the impacts from existing drilling before adding even more to the problem," Kuyper says.
Forest Service oil and gas resource specialist Al Hess, who has been working on the Los Padres forest energy plan for 10 years, says that after thorough study, officials eliminated all significant environmental and recreational impacts.
"It would have no impact on wilderness, because that area is off-limits," Hess says. "Anywhere there was possible impact on threatened and endangered species was taken off the table."
But potential threats to imperiled wildlife, mainly the California condor, have drawn the most opposition. The attorney general's appeal cites "risks to the viability" of the condor, and environmentalists aren't satisfied with some of the protective measures for the bird. Surface drilling would be allowed up to the boundary of the Sespe Condor Sanctuary. The Los Padres forest is home to 44 of the remaining 100 wild condors. The Forest Service would require companies to locate wells at least a mile and a half from condor nest and roost sites, bury power lines, keep lids on liquid containers and pick up trash daily so condors don't eat it.
Despite the debate, the amount of oil recoverable from new wells in the Los Padres forest would amount to 17 million barrels -- equivalent to less than one day's worth of U.S. oil consumption, according to the Energy Information Administration.
The Forest Service has 45 days to respond to the appeals. If it elects to move forward with oil leasing, lawsuits could follow, Kuyper says.