San Diego County’s back roads wind through hills overgrown with chaparral a thick cover of brush that stands in most places no higher than the average person. Here and there boulders lie nakedly in the vegetation, and some of the hills are blanketed with them, as if the forces that created those areas had somehow overlooked plants altogether.
When I was a child my family would occasionally pile into the car and head up one of these roads; we would be going on a picnic, or to “the snow,” or just out for a scenic drive, depending on the season. And on the way, no matter which route we took, we would always pass a wooden sign somewhere that spelled out, in bright yellow letters, “Entering Cleveland National Forest.”
Whenever I saw one of these signs I would look out across the dry, boulder-strewn hills around our car and think,
“National forest? Where are the trees?”
There are trees, of course, in the' Cleveland National Forest — pine, black oak, and cedar on the higher mountain slopes, and in the river valleys cottonwood, willow, maple, and coast live oak.
But the fact is, there aren't enough of them to be commercially valuable, and this one simple thing has profoundly shaped the forest’s development — or rather, the lack of it — over the years. The forest service’s Washington directors tend to think of national forests as commercial tree farms, and they have never seen much reason to sink money into this forest when seventy-five percent of it is covered with only scrub brush and chaparral.
While controversies have raged in national forests in the East and the Northwest over logging and its accompanying development, the Cleveland has had to scramble just to pull in its share of funds (there is currently no commercial logging at all going on within its borders).
All that could change, however, over the course of the next decade, as the forest service begins to develop a management plan that will guide the use of the Cleveland National Forest through well into the twenty-first century. The population boom here has brought an increasing amount of pressure to develop the Cleveland for recreational uses, and catering to campers, sightseers, and picnickers has in fact become big business here.
Reservations for some of the forest’s campgrounds can now be made through Ticketron, and there are plans to expand many of its camping facilities, which during the summer are filled regularly to capacity.
In the winter, cars full of people “going to the snow” are backed up bumper to bumper along the Sunrise Highway and Highway 79, and in recent years the highway patrol has resorted to closing these roads for hours at a time in order to keep the numbers of people down.
The Cleveland has been many things throughout its long history — a habitat for wildlife, a home for wandering tribes of Indians, a pastureland for the cattle of white settlers, a watershed for a growing city that was once water-starved and may soon be again. Now it has become a playground for urban refugees, who seem to have no idea that their numbers and developments could alter the forest forever.
Local forest service officials say that the Cleveland’s management plan is part of a nationwide program to assess and monitor more closely the resources of the nation’s 154 forests. And for the next few years they will be soliciting public opinion at various stages of the plan. But there is little doubt that mass recreation will figure importantly in the final version, as more and more people turn to the Cleveland as one of the few remaining relatively undisturbed tracts of land in San Diego County.
“The role of the Cleveland is changing,” says Dick Modee, land management planner for the forest, “to one of providing natural resources, a place to get away from urban pressures. We’re becoming more like the National Park Service, really. But whereas the park service emphasizes conservation, our emphasis is more on multiple use — the tangible assets. We do have a responsibility to protect the resources, but within the context of recent federal legislation we also have to find out what those resources are capable of.”
All this bodes well for the public, perhaps, but it does not necessarily bode well for the forest. The increasing number of visitors has already brought increasing amounts of crime, vandalism, and loss of open space, and expanding the recreational capacity of the Cleveland will undoubtedly exacerbate these problems. It may well be that the public could ultimately find they have lost the atmosphere which lured them to the forest in the first place; that they have, so to speak, overlooked the trees for the forest.
John Hobbs, a professor of political science at San Diego State University and conservation chairman for the local chapter of the Audubon Society, thinks that the resources of some areas of the Cleveland are already being overtaxed through mass recreation. “Recreation is the single most destructive element in the Cleveland right now,” he insists. “It destroys the watershed, erodes the roads, interferes with the wildlife. ... If the forest service’s plan is vulnerable any way, it’s that they’re a little excessive in opening up some areas to camping uses. The Cleveland has to be managed in some way to keep the capacity down. I’m terribly afraid that, even with a compromise plan, in twenty years it will be a forest experience that most people will not want.”
The Cleveland National Forest was established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, who named it after his predecessor at the White House, Grover Cleveland. But its history goes back much further than that, to about 100 million years ago, when mountains considerably taller than those in the area today dominated the landscape. “They would have looked a lot like the modem Andes in South America,” says Dr. Pat Abbott, a professor of geology at SDSU. The mountains were eroded down to hills over tens of millions of years, and then thrust upward again as the Baja Peninsula began to tear away from mainland Mexico about eight million years ago.
“The best word-picture I can use to describe those mountains up there today is that they’re the core of that ancient Andean mountain range, uplifted over a tremendously long period of time,” says Abbott. “In fact, they’re still being uplifted, slowly.” The flowering plants, and with them the first seed-bearing trees, appeared about sixty million years ago, and were followed by early mammals: rhinoceros, camels, and sabre-toothed tigers. Man first appeared in the area perhaps as long as twenty thousand years ago, but the only known tribes in recent history were the Diegueno and the star-worshipping Luiseno, who had probably been in the area for several thousand years when the Spanish arrived. The former tribe traveled in and around the Laguna and Cuyamaca mountains, while the latter lived further north in the Palomar Mountains; but both found themselves pushed out of their sacred grounds by the Spanish, and later by the white settlers, who cut down trees in great number for houses, and used the lush mountain meadows to graze their cattle. Gold was discovered near Julian in 1869, and the mining boom that followed led to the destruction of even more trees for mine timbers, heat, and fuel. During the 1880s fires set by incautious miners burned out of control for weeks at a time, damaging the water supplies of rural areas and threatening to destroy the watershed for far-off San Diego. Public outcry led to the establishment of a forest preserve in Trabuco Canyon (in Riverside County) in 1893, and in 1908 President Roosevelt added to it the Palomar and Laguna mountain stream systems, incorporating all three areas under the name of the Cleveland National Forest.
Originally located in Escondido, the headquarters for the forest are now in the brick-red Federal Building in downtown San Diego, top floor, southwestern corner. On a visit there last month I was vaguely amused and disconcerted to find that the people who manage the forest, and who will be implementing the upcoming plan in whatever form it eventually assumes, work in tiny office cubicles, looking out at the San Diego Harbor and the Coronado Bridge. They talk in terms of visitor days, multiple use, brush management, and animal unit months, all of which seemed to me to have about as much in common with a place where trees grow as the rocky hills I first saw through the window of my parent's car as a child.
As it turns out, though, the management personnel of the Cleveland are rather large in number and widely scattered, and there are quite a few of them who live in and around the forest itself. The organizational structure of the Cleveland’s management is in fact somewhat treelike, branching out from the main trunk of the downtown headquarters to district offices in Alpine, Escondido, and Santa Ana, which oversee even more widely scattered forest stations, campgrounds, and fire lookouts. There are three districts in all: Descanso, which begins a few miles north of Tecate and Campo and stretches northward to Julian, encompassing the Laguna and Cuyamaca mountain areas; Palomar, which is primarily the land in and around the Palomar Mountains; and Trabuco, which sprawls across San Diego, Riverside, and Orange counties east of Camp Pendleton. Altogether the forest occupies some 415,000 acres, the equivalent of fifteen percent of San Diego County’s total area.
Within this huge domain the forest service reigns more or less supreme, taking responsibility for fighting fires and granting permits for various activities under the policy of multiple use. It is a wide-ranging policy, encompassing everything from wholesale mining to remote camping, and it has been the focus of controversy ever since the forest service officially adopted it in 1960. Conservationists have dubbed it “multiple abuse,” claiming that the forest service has given precedence to production-oriented uses over those which preserve the landscape. The forest service counters that preservation is not the only responsibility they have — that their charter mandates the utilization of forests for a variety of things.
Locally, forest service officials like Dick Modee deny that they are under pressure from Washington to develop the Cleveland for recreation in the absence of any timber production. They say that recreational development will stop far short of places like Yosemite and Yellowstone, and it would be nice to take their word for it. But the many documented cases of overcutting timber in other national forests offer ample proof that the forest service has had a tradition of putting profits before preservation.
Modee says that this is one of the reasons that a comprehensive management plan is currently being developed, and that the legislation requiring it directs the forest service specifically to respond to what the public wants. But he recently conceded that the public doesn’t always speak as a single entity. “When you manage land for multiple use, it creates a lot of conflicts among special interest groups,” he said. “You can’t satisfy all of the public’s needs and still maintain a responsible, balanced management program.” Then he shook his head, chuckling. “Rhetorically, it sounds good to say we want a balanced management program, but frankly, I don’t think anyone really knows what the hell that means.”
John Hobbs sees it this way: “Multiple use can succeed if it’s applied properly, but the death knell could be recreation. The forest service is still prevailingly product-oriented — they have a hard time realizing that the best product they have is not a tangible one.”
The coyote suddenly comes to a halt, alerted, perhaps, by the idling truck engine. The evening sun is just beginning to pale over this meadow in the Laguna Mountains, but already the temperature is in the low thirties; the animal’s breath can be seen as it stands surveying the campground a few hundred yards in front of it. Suddenly it turns — almost casually — and trots back towards the forest’s edge.
“Doesn’t look too spooked, does it?” The man sitting next to me in the truck cab is Dennis Orbus. a resource officer with the forest service’s district office in Alpine. He is a big man, thirty-three years old. with a full beard and a mischievous smile that right now spreads slowly across his face as he comments on the coyote. On the other side of Orbus sits the driver of the truck, Norm Machado, another forest service employee out of the Alpine office.
Machado is forty and rather quiet, with flecks of white beginning to appear in his dark, curly hair. The three of us have been cruising through the Cleveland National Forest’s Laguna Mountain Recreation Area for most of the afternoon while Orbus and Machado point out to me what facilities there are in the area, and where new ones might soon be built. I asked for the tour because the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area is probably the most heavily used area in the forest, and I wanted to see what effects, if any, it might be showing as a result.
Machado puts the truck back into gear, and we move slowly away from the meadow, along one of the asphalt roadways through the Laguna Campground. It is late November; the campground is nearly empty, and the broad yellow leaves of the black oaks cover the ground everywhere. It is hard to imagine the crowds that Orbus describes descending on this place on summer weekends, vandalizing the forest service’s facilities and driving in unauthorized areas.
The ground is covered with trash instead of oak leaves then, and the problem is, if anything, worse in the wintertime. “When the snow comes, everyone parks along the sides of the roads,” says Orbus. “Last May we had a bunch of volunteers who came in and picked up all the litter left over from the winter. Just working along the Sunrise Highway they came up with one dump truck plus one trailer load of trash, all of it within one hundred yards of the road.”
Orbus seems genuinely aware of the problems that overdevelopment could bring to the Cleveland. Yet at the same time he talks about those problems he also talks about expanding the forest service’s recreational development in the forest, as if the former somehow weren’t related to the latter. It is an ambivalence that seems to run very deep in the forest service personnel I talked to, and perhaps to the very core of the forest service itself.
Two years ago, for instance, the service prepared a lengthy environmental impact statement on the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area. The Kemp Ranch, a centrally located, 2000-acre parcel, had just been purchased for $1.6 million, and local officials wanted to revise their management plan for the entire area. The resulting seventy-nine page summation included such intriguing facts as the area’s temperature extremes (10°F in winter to 90°F in summer), average annual rainfall (nineteen inches), and maximum PAOT (People At One Time) who could be accommodated by its combined facilities (about 5000, not including sightseers in cars).
It proposed several alternatives for managing the area’s recreational capacity, which ranged from maintaining the current capacity to tripling it. The resulting compromise plan calls for roughly doubling the overall capacity of the area, in spite of the increase of vandalism, littering, and damage such an expansion is sure to bring. The forest service, it seems, tends to take a dim view of development on the land it controls — unless the development is its own.
Now, as Orbus, Machado, and I drive through the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area, the two of them explain to me what some of the new facilities will be. “Behind those trees we’re hoping to put a visitors’ center,” says Orbus, pointing to a spot in the meadow near where the coyote appeared minutes before. “It would include a museum, but not the grand scale type museum — just small displays.”
Also planned, he says, are an entrance station, an equestrian campground, and about 150 remote campsites around the Big Laguna meadow. (Remote campsites are more accurately described as dispersed campsites, because, while they only accommodate four or five persons each, they are not always far removed from other more developed camping facilities.)“We’ll also be expanding our larger campgrounds. Laguna and Burnt Rancheria,” Orbus continues. “A lot of people think we should put in more of those type campgrounds, but I’m personally not very sympathetic to that type of reasoning. Most of our campgrounds now are the developed type.”
Remote camping, hiking trails, and other types of dispersed recreation have been slow to catch on in the Cleveland. The forest service says this is partly because of the high fire danger in the forest; there has always been a fear that campers who aren’t being closely watched could set the whole place ablaze. But the high fire danger in the Cleveland is in part attributable to the forest service’s Smokey the Bear fire policy, which has always been to suppress fires as quickly as possible. This in turn has meant that old trees, brush and undergrowth in the Cleveland have built up to unnaturally high levels, so that now when a fire breaks out it bums hotter and is much harder to control.
In 1970 the image of Smokey came back to haunt the forest service when a fire broke out near Horse Meadow in the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area. Norm Machado was working as a firefighter in the Cleveland then, and he was one of the first people to arrive on the scene. Machado, who had previously been a supervisor in the forest service’s elite firefighting crew, the Hotshots, recalls, “We tried to keep it from jumping the road, but we couldn't. After that it just. ... It was quite an experience. It makes you realize how insignificant you are.”
The Laguna fire, as it came to be known, burned 180,000 acres in three days. Twelve people died, 382 homes were destroyed, and $14 million in damage claims was filed. Several people — among them a local official from the state department of fish and game — later charged that the forest service had been negligent in letting the old growth accumulate.
Today the forest service is leaning more towards “controlled burns,” deliberately set fires which burn more coolly than wildfires and help rejuvenate the chaparral which covers most of the Cleveland. Helicopters rigged with a device that ignites and sprays jellied gasoline will fly over the area to be burned, while crews of firefighters stand ready nearby to contain the fire, if necessary. Controlled burns will reduce the fire danger while benefiting both plants and wildlife, but they might also indirectly encourage development of the remoter areas of the Cleveland for hiking and dispersed camping.
Machado maneuvers the truck down a badly rutted dirt road, through stands of stately Jeffrey pine and barren oak. John Hobbs swears that he hiked down one of the dirt roads in this area not long ago and came upon a young man washing his car in the middle of the forest, stereo speakers blaring.
But the only one who marks our passing today is a red-tailed hawk, who eyes us suspiciously from a blackened stump. “When it snows, these guys on three-wheeled trail bikes want to go everywhere,” Orbus is saying. “We keep the gates across the dirt roads locked, but they’ll go right around them and through the trees to get on the roads. If it’s wet their tires just sink right in; that’s where these ruts came from. It’s a tough regulation to enforce, but it sure is expensive to repair. ”
We round a bend in the road and suddenly are presented with a graphic illustration of what Orbus means. Off to the right is a huge excavation, a scar some fourteen feet high and fifty feet long where a hillside used to be. “We had to excavate here to repair the ruts in the road further up,” Orbus explains. “They were getting so deep the road was starting to wash away."
We drive on, the stillness of the autumn evening settling all around. Getting out of the truck once to open a gate, Orbus comes back rubbing his hands together and remarking about the cold. A few moments later we drive past a meadow with what appears to be a patch of snow in its middle. Coming closer we can see it is a small seep of groundwater that has frozen solid.
"There’s a good place for some remote campsites," says Orbus, pointing to a sloping hillside near the edge of the meadow where a cluster of pine trees provides shelter. “You could camp here and probably park right on the other side of the hill."
Halfway down the hillside into the Pine Creek Valley I hear gunshots booming out of the distant hills. They are far enough away to give me no reason to pause, but if they come much closer I may have to play it more safely. I am here alone to hike across the Pine Creek area, a 13,000-acre tract of the Cleveland National Forest that is currently being considered for possible designation as a wilderness. (In a wilderness area, which can only be created by an act of Congress, mining, logging, and developed recreation are prohibited in favor of limited recreation such as fishing and hiking, which will preserve the pristine quality of the landscape.) Having made previous arrangements to be dropped off by a friend, I have no choice but to complete the hike in order to get to my car, parked some ten miles away in Pine Valley, and it would hardly facilitate things to get caught by stray buckshot.
A few days ago I called up Norm Machado and asked him how to get to the Pine Creek area. After explaining which turnoff to take near the forest service’s Japatul Station, he told me. “You should be able to find the trail head — it’s on the right side of the road a few miles down. There are signs marking it, but they’re kind of hard to see. Don’t park your car there; though; it’ll get shot up." Some wilderness, I thought. But as I continue on down the hillside now, with the sun blazing high overhead in a cloudless sky, it seems pleasant enough. The slopes are full of the thick green chaparral that covers most of the Cleveland: chamise, mountain sumac, sage, and buckwheat. Here and there weathered yucca stalks rise out of the shrubbery, and the trail is littered with the slender acorns of scrub oak. I can also make out along the trail the track of what looks like a motorcycle; even though this area is closed to off-road vehicles, someone has conveniently disregarded the regulations, although it is impossible to tell how long ago.
Ahead of me the green hills rise up imposingly. From here it looks all but impossible to cross the area in a single day, but by keeping close to the bed of Pine Creek 1 figure just six good hours of hiking will see me home. According to the forest service, this area is the only part of the Cleveland that is being considered for designation as wilderness. According to Frank Norris of the Sierra Club, there are at least three other areas that have been slated for further study and which could eventually become wilderness, including one just south of the Pine Creek area and another near the San Diego River, west of Cuyamaca State Park. But the Pine Creek area, which lies just south of Interstate 8 between Japatul Road and Corte Madera Mountain, is the largest of all of them, and probably stands the best chance.
Congress defines a wilderness area as a roadless area of over 5000 acres, but as I walk down the path towards Pine Creek I recall how Peter Matthiessen, the well-known author and naturalist, defined the term when he was in San Diego last April. Wilderness, he said, developed as a figment in the minds of Western Europeans, who migrated to America and perceived the land as something to be feared, conquered, and exploited. The primitive peoples of the world, he pointed out, know no “wilderness”; and his is a compelling argument. Perhaps if our nation had thought less in terms of wilderness, we would today have more than the few remaining islands of undeveloped ground like this Pine Creek area.
At the bottom of the hill the trail opens into the main creek valley, several hundred yards across. I am surprised at its size, and surprised, too, when I find Pine Creek itself a few minutes later — a cold, clear stream that even now, at the end of the dry season in Southern California, runs swiftly through these arid hills. Around it grow cottonwoods and willows, the latter’s thin, pointed leaves turning brilliant yellow and orange in the late morning sun. Not far away stands a huge coast live oak, its elephantine limbs thrusting upward for at least seventy feet. The Diegueno Indians are said to have prized the acorns of the coast live oak above all others; after cooking them in earthen pits the Indians ground the acorns into meal, which was then mixed with water to make a sweet gruel, or baked into cakes. Now, gazing up at this marvelous old tree, its boughs heavy with acorns, I think again of Matthiessen, who was recently told by an Indian woman to take this message back to his peers: “Tell them that their wilderness is our supermarket."
Working my way northward up the creek a few minutes later I come upon two three-wheeled trail bikes, parked side by side in a willow glade. Undoubtedly these vehicles made the illegal tracks I saw earlier on the trail, but there is no one around to claim them now, and I decide to simply ignore them and push on. As the valley narrows I begin to cross and recross the creek, in order to take advantage of the cattle trails that seem to wind everywhere through the brush. From here to my destination there is no path per se and I will have to make my way as best I can.
Although I see no cattle anywhere around me, their sign is everywhere, and they have clearly been here recently. Cattle are allowed to graze in certain parts of the Cleveland, provided their owners apply for a grazing permit and pay $2.03 per head per year for the privilege. There aren’t many people who take advantage of this, and I have heard that there are less than 2000 head of cattle, all told, that graze in the Cleveland. But because there is so little pastureland in this forest, and because deer and cattle eat pretty much the same things, cattle grazing in the Cleveland has become something of a mini-controversy. Danielle Jerry, a wildlife biologist hired recently by the forest service to study wildlife in the Descanso district of the Cleveland (which includes the Pine Creek area), told me recently that the deer population in her district has been unusually low for a number of years. Recent studies by the state fish and game department have revealed that there is more competition for food and habitat between deer and cattle than was previously thought, and as a result, cattle grazing on the forest could be curtailed.
“There’s no question that in this district wildlife is the thing that has been getting short shrift,” Jerry told me. “Recreation has been the thing that has been getting all the funds — that and fire management." Wilderness areas such as Pine Creek could help balance the ledger by providing wildlife with a place to breed and grow relatively free from man and his developments. Jerry pointed out that the stream beds in the Cleveland are particularly crucial to wildlife because water is in such short supply; yet stream beds are the most commonly used places for building roads. “Our old roads in the Cleveland are definitely poor, really bad,” Jerry complained. “They increase erosion — which is bad for the fish — and use up an area that for the rest of the wildlife is one of the most productive zones we’ve got.”
Here on Pine Creek there is no road, but if cow dung is any indicator, this place was recently something of a cattle freeway. Still, as I work my way farther and farther up the valley I rely increasingly on the cattle trails to make my way through the thick stands of brush. Without them it would be tough going indeed. Here and there beneath the bushes I begin to see little mounds of scat, glistening and full of berries; coyote, probably, but I neither see nor hear anything but the chirping of white-crowned sparrows as I scrape through.
After several hours (I am reckoning by the sun, since I have no watch), I stop by the creek to rest and eat. The sound of water rushing over polished rocks drowns out everything but the occasional drone of an airplane, and I lean back and stare up a nameless hill that slopes steeply upward from where I am sitting for nearly 2000 feet. I don’t really feel as if I have gotten all that far away from civilization. Along the creek-bed I have seen numerous shotgun shells, and near one bend I even stooped to pick up an empty Doritos bag. Still, this place is pleasant, and secluded, and I feel I could stay here most of the afternoon. But unfortunately the breeze soon turns cool, and I realize I should move on.
It isn’t long before I can see the valley is narrowing even further, and even the cattle trails begin to get hard to make out. I scramble around and over boulders taller than myself, only to find that the path I was following suddenly ends, and I have to turn back. Climbing atop a boulder after a particularly difficult stretch, I see that I have come only a hundred yards or so in the last half hour. Ahead I can see nothing but willows and rocks. But I continue on, and soon find myself crawling on hands and knees through dense thickets of willow and poison oak; the creek itself is so densely overgrown that I have no choice.
Finally, after several unsuccessful attempts to exit one small glade, I sit back and consider my options. Since my car lies several miles ahead, turning around means walking or hitchhiking some twenty miles around the area I am now going through. Furthermore, I am now so deep in this maze of brush that going back promises to be just as difficult as going on. But on the other hand, the afternoon is already getting old, and if the canyon is densely overgrown for much further I am going to be forced to spend a chilly night here sans sleeping bag.
In the end it was the Budweiser can that prompted my decision to move on. There is something so irritating about sitting in what has to be one of the most inaccessible parts of San Diego County, and seeing an empty beer can caught in the brush nearby, that I couldn’t bear to turn back. Perhaps it did wash down from somewhere closer to civilization — so what? The point is that it was there. I crawled into the brush again, and soon found that the canyon was widening out and there were cattle trails everywhere. A few miles upstream I came across a cattle skull and backbone, picked clean by coyotes, which gave me cause to wonder briefly about the wisdom of following those trails after all. But I decided it was too late to come up with an alternative strategy, and an hour or so later I knew I was out of the woods when I saw a red-and-white sign nailed to an oak that read, “No hunting or trespassing under penalty of the law.”
It took me eight hours to cross the Pine Creek area. That’s two hours longer than I expected, but it says something about open space in the Cleveland when an itinerant journalist can cross one of its largest undeveloped areas, at its widest point, in half a day. I wouldn’t argue against the preservation of the Pine Creek area in its natural state — we need it for its beauty and its ability to support a diverse and healthy wildlife population. But we are deluding ourselves if we call this a wilderness.
The Palomar district office of the Cleveland National Forest is located in a small office building on South Juniper Street, near downtown Escondido. The building doesn’t look as if it would house a forest service office — in fact, it looks like a modem apartment complex — and, in a way, it seems to reflect the lack of attention that the Palomar district has received in the forest service’s scheme of things for the Cleveland. There are several reasons why Palomar hasn’t figured more importantly: it is further from metropolitan San Diego than the Descanso district; its rugged terrain and scarcity of water have made developments of any type relatively difficult and expensive; and, perhaps most importantly, the pattern of private land ownership in the area has made large portions of the district inaccessible by public road or trail. Thus, other than the Palomar Observatory and a few campgrounds, the Palomar district’s prime recreational development is one that isn’t really a development at all: the Cleveland’s and San Diego County’s only officially designated wilderness area, Agua Tibia.
Agua Tibia is a hilly, 16,000-acre tract that stretches down the northwestern slope of the Palomar Mountains and comes to an abrupt halt just over the Riverside County line, on State Highway 79. It used to be both home and hunting grounds for the Luiseno Indians (now confined to neighboring reservations), but in 1926 Agua Tibia became officially recognized by the government of the United States as a Primitive Area, and in 1964 it became a wilderness, one of the first areas in the nation to be so designated. It supports a wide variety of animals not commonly found in San Diego County — from mountain lions to golden eagles — and several habitats — from chaparral to pine forest — but within the Palomar district even Agua Tibia has a relatively low usage rate. The reasons, according to Tom Homer, a resource officer with the district, are the same as those that plague the rest of the Palomar district — lack of water and the pattern of private land ownership, the latter of which prevents the lone trail through Agua Tibia from linking up to any other public trail, road, or settlement. The hiker or hunter going up the Agua Tibia trail must either return the way he or she came or strike out through the brush.
Homer says the recent federal legislation that has focussed an increasing amount of attention on the Descanso district hasn’t yet had much effect on the Palomar district. “We don’t even know what’s out there yet,” he told me with a hint of frustration. “We’re still trying to find out.” Currently part of the process of finding out involves a survey of mountain lions and large raptors such as eagles and prairie falcons, to determine the population and health of those which reside within the district’s boundaries. The surveys are being carried out under the supervision of Steve Widowski, wildlife biologist for the Palomar district, and so far they have yielded some interesting results.
Widowski says the mountain lion survey. begun two years ago as part of a statewide effort to determine the status of mountain lions in California, has shown that at least seven adult lions are living in the Palomar district, and perhaps as many as twelve. Since the lions, as predators, are at the top of the food chain, and since an adult male may require a hunting range of as much as one hundred square miles, a healthy lion population is taken as one indicator that precious wildlife habitat is being preserved. But even in the Palomar district, Widowski notes, man’s developments are beginning to make an impact. “The biggest effect on the wildlife here is habitat destruction,” he says, explaining that in recent years not only houses but avocado groves have begun to replace forest and chaparral on Palomar’s slopes. “If the habitat goes,” he adds, “the lions go.’”
Widowski has been taking a census of bald and golden eagles in the district, crisscrossing the area in a helicopter for days at a time to search out nests. The discovery of active golden eagle nests on the higher slopes, and the continued winter stopover of a few rare bald eagles near Lake Henshaw, could lead to a management policy that would make parts of these areas off limits to people, particularly during the crucial nesting season. But the potential for expanding the recreational capacity of the Palomar district is well recognized, and there are those within the forest service who hope that its potential will be realized as the Cleveland's comprehensive plan takes shape over the next few years,
“Right now it doesn’t look like we’re going to develop more developed-type campgrounds.” says Homer. “They’re too expensive to maintain. But there seems to be a potential here for greater amounts of dispersed recreation and grazing.” Steve Widowski, meanwhile, worries that an expanded recreational capacity, no matter what shape it assumes, will have an adverse impact on the ecology of the district. "We hope its effect on wildlife will be positive,” he told me. “It will probably be negative. But we hope to coordinate it to minimize the impact. Some things can enhance both recreation and wildlife.”
A few days after Christmas a friend and I drove up to the edge of the Agua Tibia wilderness area, which can be easily entered only from the forest service’s Dripping Springs station, a few miles cast of Temecula on State Highway 79. It had rained the night before, and as we hiked up the first half mile of the wilderness trail the air was fresh with the scent of pine and sage. Raindrops still glistened on spider’s webs in the manzanita, and to the north the countryside stretched for miles under a cover of ragged storm clouds. A decade was ending, and a new one almost here, and like the forest service’s posters which recently announced public information sessions on the upcoming plan, I was wondering. “What’s in the future for the Cleveland National Forest?” The forest service will very likely continue to be product-oriented, and it may well be that we will need the Cleveland’s ground for raising food, or to provide mass recreation as an escape from our cities; we may even need its chaparral to provide biomass fuels to heat our homes or power our cars. But we will also need its open spaces, and the only way to ensure their preservation seems to be to label them wilderness areas and prohibit any further development within their borders. We need these areas not just to appease a few hikers, but because they are as closely bound up with the quality of our lives as any automobile or electric appliance. We need them in order to preserve that which makes the forest a forest in the first place.
Cecil Andrus, currently the Secretary of the Interior, once released a statement about wilderness areas when he was governor of Idaho. "Consider the multiple use of a wilderness area,” he wrote. “While it is called ‘single use’ by those who hope to harvest the timber or extract the minerals, wilderness is actually one of the best examples of the multiple-use philosophy we have in America. Fishermen, hunters, hikers, photographers, riders, researchers, boaters, floaters, tubers, campers — all are accommodated by a wilderness area.”
Agua Tibia is such an area, and as I stood in its deep chaparral that morning, gazing up at a distant ridge, I recalled Andrus’s statement. But at almost the same instant I recalled something else — something Steve Widowski had told me about the mountain lion survey that got underway in the Palomar district two years ago. The first day of the survey, he said, he and an assistant found a mountain lion lying in the middle of State Highway 79, at the foot of Agua Tibia. It had been hit by a car, and it was dead.