Cleveland Forest Pine Creek cabins on endangered list

Arroyo Southwestern toad is part of the reason why

About a dozen federally protected endangered species, including the southwestern willow flycatcher and the Laguna Mountains skipper butterfly, live in the Cleveland National Forest, the 424,000-acre woodland preserve that stretches across the rugged backcountry of three Southern California counties.

Marcella Fescina isn't on the government's list of threatened forest dwellers. Yet the 46-year-old, a part-time resident of the Cleveland's Pine Creek cabin tract, may be on the verge of disappearing, too, together with 36 of her neighbors.

"I still have high hopes that nobody is going to get us," Fescina says as she prepares for her weekly trip from her home in Clairemont to the site in the Cleveland that has been in her family for almost 50 years.

"It would kill me if I had to tear the cabin down."

In 1951, two years before Fescina was born, her parents, Willard and Jennette Winberg, bought a burned-out cabin alongside a creek just north of Pine Valley, a town 45 miles east of San Diego so well nestled in its hollow that drivers on nearby Interstate 8 can speed past without seeing it.

The Winbergs quickly rebuilt on the site. The new cabin was simple at first, but over time, it grew to be a three-bedroom, two-story home away from home. Willard did most of the work himself on weekends with supplies hauled up from San Diego in the family car. On Fridays, when he got home from his job at the phone company, Willard would pack up his Chrysler with lumber and concrete, as well as food and water. He'd pull out from the family home on Illinois Street, head east on surface streets, and then pick up U.S. 80, easing up on the accelerator on the stretch between Alpine and Pine Valley, where the road was narrow and the turns were sharp.

By the time Fescina was born in 1953, the cabin at Pine Creek was complete, and the Winbergs, who now spent most weekends there, joined an exclusive group: The 15,200 Americans -- just 245 of them in San Diego County -- who own vacation homes on national forest land.

Over the years, some things have changed, including the annual permit fee, which has jumped from $30 to $1250. In the 1970s, the trip to Pine Creek was shortened when the long-delayed I-8 extension into San Diego's backcountry finally opened. In 1981, Fescina's father died. Two years later, she purchased the cabin from her mother. In 1989, fire raced through the structure again. Only two stone chimneys, built by Fescina's father and uncle Newell, were left standing. After a year of indecision, she resolved to rebuild in the early 1990s, incorporating the surviving chimneys into the new cabin.

But the rhythm Pine Creek imposes on Fescina's life hasn't changed all that much over the years. Most Fridays, Fescina (she hasn't dropped her ex-husband's name), Armando, her partner of 16 years, and Hank, the couple's six-year-old German Shepherd, head east just as her parents did.

Fescina just finds it harder to relax once she arrives.

The worries began this spring, a year after environmentalists sued the Forest Service over alleged Endangered Species Act violations in four Southern California forests, including the Cleveland, when the government released a report on the impact cabins were having on threatened wildlife.

For most cabin owners in San Diego County, the news was good. The report, authored by Craig Cowie, a 25-year veteran of the Forest Service, found that 11 of the 12 tracts in the county were in compliance with the Endangered Species Act and the Forest Plan, a document that comes out every 10 to 15 years and guides all activities in the Cleveland, from camping and hiking to cabin dwelling and mining.

The exception was the Pine Creek tract, where Fescina and her neighbors were told they were "inconsistent with the Forest Plan." Their homes, which in some cases had been in the families for two or three generations, might have to be dismantled, their permits revoked.

Suddenly, Fescina's connection to the Cleveland, the cabin her father built and she and Armando rebuilt, is in jeopardy. And the threat, it turns out, comes from a neighbor she and her fellow Pine Creek residents had heard -- but rarely seen -- for years.

"It's a toad thing," explains Anne Carey, a ranger who works in the San Diego County portion of the forest.


THE U.S. GOVERNMENT issued its first cabin permit, or recreation residence special-use permit, around 1908. Theodore Roosevelt, that great lover of the outdoors, was president, and the country's forest reserves were still new.

The permits allowed holders to build dwellings on forest land for "recreational purposes" only. Although the cabins were the property of the permit holders, they could not -- and still cannot -- be used as primary residences or rented.

In exchange for this privileged access to public land, the cabin owners paid a small annual rent and provided unofficial assistance to the perpetually understaffed Forest Service, watching for fires, reporting unauthorized hunting or mining, and providing emergency aid when necessary.

Fescina's family began its association with the national forests in Southern California in the 1920s, when her maternal grandfather, Guy Casler, a caretaker in the Angeles Forest, built a cabin in the woodlands where he worked and moved his wife, his daughter Jennette, and his sons Newell and Earle into the structure. The experience gave Jennette, Fescina's mother, a taste for the outdoors that she passed onto her husband and her daughter.

"It really has been part of our heritage," Fescina says.

In the Cleveland, about 330 cabins were built by the time the last new permit was issued in the early 1950s. The earliest, erected in 1911, was a simple wood affair known as El Prado that was used by rangers. It still stands today. Most of the recreational cabins on the Cleveland were constructed later, during the 1930s and '40s, often with native stone or timber. Although a few cabins are scattered around Orange County, most are located here in San Diego County and concentrated in clusters up on Mt. Laguna and down in Pine Creek.

For many years, the cabins remained quite primitive. Until the 1960s and 1970s, electricity and running water were rare. Even today, automobile access is often along rutted, unpaved roads. In Pine Creek, some owners must traverse a rocky streambed that runs through the tract to get to their cabins, a streambed that is home for part of the year to what Fescina calls "our friendly, lovely little toad."

In recent years, many cabin owners installed electricity and indoor plumbing, extensively remodeled the interiors, and added other modern conveniences. As a result, the prices the cabins fetch when they change hands has risen. Today, cabins on Mt. Laguna can cost as much as $125,000, says Louise Van Dusen, a real estate agent who specializes in property on the mountain, though some are still available for just $70,000.

"For $70,000," says Van Dusen, "you're probably going to get 600 square feet and, hopefully, a private bedroom."

Down in Pine Creek, things are more reasonable. Cabins range from about $50,000 to $75,000, says Jack Jones, an agent at Glenn D. Mitchel in Pine Valley, who says he sells one or two in the tract each year. Most pass between friends or family members or are sold by word of mouth. Conventional financing isn't available, so purchasers either pay cash or get the current owner to finance.

The reward for those who manage to scrape up the cash is simple, says one of Fescina's neighbors, who asked not to be identified.

"I'll tell you what the attraction is," the neighbor said. "You drive out of San Diego and all of the traffic and get up to the cabin and when you get there, an attitude overwhelms you: To hell with the rest of the world."


UNFORTUNATELY, ESCAPE ISN'T AS EASY as it used to be at Pine Creek. The outside world is beginning to intrude on the cabin owners' forest idyll with increasing regularity.

In 1996, the General Accounting Office (GAO) released a report blasting the Forest Service's cabin permit policies. The title said it all: "U.S. Forest Service: Fees for Recreation Special Use Permits Do Not Reflect Fair Market Value."

In it, the GAO reported that fee increases had failed to keep pace with rising land values and that many permit holders were paying rates based on appraisals made in the late 1970s. The Forest Service reacted to the report (as well as a 1997 story on the subject that ran as a "Fleecing of America" segment of the NBC Nightly News) with a five-year initiative to reappraise the country's 15,200 recreation residence lots. Properties were to be assessed on the value of the land, not on any improvements.

To date, almost 50 percent of the cabins have been reassessed, and few permit holders are smiling. According to Senate testimony last year from a top Forest Service official, only 12 percent of permit holders have seen their fees fall as a result of the new system. Some 44 percent have seen their fees increase by as much as 100 percent; 38 percent saw them jump between 100 to 500 percent; and 6 percent saw their fees surge more than 500 percent.

The National Forest Homeowners Association, a Portland-based group that represents about 5000 cabin owners, including Fescina, isn't happy with the new system.

"Generally speaking, the sites for cabins are about the same size, between a quarter and a half an acre," says Bob Ervin, the executive director of the NFH. "Some have water views and sit on the waterfront. Others don't. But the use of the same size of land shouldn't provide figures where some people are paying less than $200 a year and others are paying upwards of $30,000. There ought not to be that kind of swing."

Escalating permit fees are just the beginning of the problem. Critics also have begun to question the basic fairness of giving a handful of Americans special access to public land.

"These are sweetheart deals," says Peter Galvin, a conservation biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity, the Tucson group that sued the Forest Service last year over alleged Endangered Species Act violations in the Cleveland.

Galvin, whose group is in negotiations with the Forest Service to settle the suit through unspecified "corrective actions," insists that, for the most part, environmentalists have better things to worry about than the 245 cabins in San Diego County.

"In the larger scheme of things, are the recreational residences the thing that we would hold up as the biggest threat to wildlife?" he says. "Other than the Pine Creek tract, we'd say no. ...But [Pine Creek] was a poor choice for cabin sites that is coming back to haunt everybody because it's one of the few sites where arroyo toads occur."


THE ARROYO SOUTHWESTERN TOAD joined the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's list of endangered species in late 1994, about two years after Fescina finished rebuilding her fire-gutted cabin with $90,000 she raised with a second mortgage on her Clairemont home.

Like most toads, the arroyo isn't much to look at. According to the government order granting protection, the toad is only two to three inches long, "greenish gray or tan toad in color, with warty skin, dark spots, a buff-colored underside and light-colored stripe across its head and eyelids." It hops rather than walks, prefers shallow pools and sandy terraces, and, according to just about everybody, makes a perfect nighttime racket with its shrill mating calls during breeding season, which runs from late March until late June.

In the past, the toad's range extended from San Diego to San Luis Obispo. But urbanization of Southern California, and the dam construction that followed, destroyed about three-quarters of its habitat. Today, Fish and Wildlife says, "they survive primarily in the headwaters as small isolated populations." In 1990, "only seven pairs of arroyo toads were known to have bred anywhere within the toad's range," putting the species "at great risk of extinction."

The move to add the toad to the endangered species list was not without its critics or controversy. In fact, when the government sought public comment on the proposal, opponents of the listing outnumbered supporters 2-to-1, according to Fish and Wildlife.

Many questioned the research supporting the listing, calling it "biased," and urged Fish and Wildlife to study the issue more before giving the toad federal protection.

But Fish and Wildlife brushed aside critics, saying, "It is the consensus of the herpetologists that contacted the Service that the arroyo toad is one of the most threatened amphibians in Southern California."

Other critics questioned Fish and Wildlife's unwillingness to reveal where surviving toads could be found. These critics wanted to conduct a kind of toad census to make sure the concerned herpetologists and environmentalists weren't overstating the case.

But Fish and Wildlife refused to budge. It argued that revealing the whereabouts of the toad "would not be prudent at this time." The reason? Toad poachers. The government claimed the toad was "threatened by taking, an activity difficult to control.... Publication of specific localities...would reveal precise locality data and thereby make the species more vulnerable to additional collection and acts of vandalism...."

The toad and its supporters prevailed and the machinery of the federal government swung into action -- too slowly for some environmentalists, too quickly for some forest users -- to defend the amphibian.

In the order adding the toad to the endangered species list, Fish and Wildlife listed the seven major threats to its remaining habitat: "(1) Short- and long-term changes in river hydrology, including construction of dams and water diversions; (2) alteration of riparian wetland habitats by agriculture and urbanization; (3) construction of roads; (4) site-specific damage by off-highway vehicle use; (5) development of campgrounds and other recreational activities; (6) overgrazing; and (7) mining activities."

Depending on how the federal government looked at it, a streamside cabin tract like Pine Creek was either a three-way threat or a four-way threat.

It was up to Craig Cowie, a 25-year veteran of the Forest Service, to find out.


COWIE PRESENTED HIS ASSESSMENT this May.

Actually, Cowie's study was one of many undertaken in late 1996 and early 1997 on orders from Forest Service chiefs in Washington. The purpose? To help the service determine how many of the country's 15,200 cabin owners would be issued new 20-year permits when the current ones expire.

"All of the cabins have renewal dates of 2008," says Carey, one of the rangers who contributed to the study. "One of the things that was listed in the permit was that if, for any reason, cabins would not be renewed, the Forest Service would give their owners ten years' notice...so they wouldn't make any improvements and could start making alternative plans."

The idea was to finish the study, which considered all 330 cabins in the Cleveland, by December 31, 1998. But in June 1998, as Cowie and his team were finalizing their report, the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity sued the Forest Service. In its suit, the environmental group claimed rangers had harmed endangered species by failing to consult with Fish and Wildlife, the agency that has final say in issues involving threatened wildlife, on forest use.

"The lawsuit slowed us down, way down, because all the people who were working on it were diverted," Cowie says.

Fescina and her neighbors learned of the study's findings this June in a letter from Cleveland National Forest Supervisor Anne Fege. Their cabins, Fege wrote, were "inconsistent with the Forest Plan." Additional studies would have to be done to see if the situation was salvageable.

The problem, as Cowie pointed out in his study, was this: "Pine Creek represents good to excellent habitat for the arroyo southwestern toad. However, the stream," he wrote in his report, "has been altered by anthropogenic activity such that many areas that would otherwise be suitable as breeding pools are now less suitable or unsuitable. Furthermore, extensive anthropogenic alteration of upland areas adjacent to the stream has resulted in considerable loss and/or degradation of habitat in these areas."

The word "if" popped up a couple of times in Fege's letter to the permit holders. They didn't like the sound of it.

"Inwardly, I'm steaming quite a bit," said the cabin owner who didn't want to be identified. "It could be costing all of us money. We could lose everything we've got in those cabins."


IN OTHER AREAS OF THE FOREST where the interest of recreational users and toads have collided, such as the Indian Flats Campground near Warner Springs, the Forest Service has adopted a hard line. In the case of Indian Flats, for instance, rangers closed the site to all campers for the four months of the arroyo southwestern toad's breeding season.

"In general," Cowie says, "what the forest plan says is if you have a threat to an endangered species it takes precedence over any other resource or activity."

But in Pine Creek, Cowie believed "we could let the arroyo toad and the rec residences exist in the same place."

To protect the toads from off-roaders, the Forest Service had already installed barriers to keep vehicles on Pine Creek Road and out of the streambed. The rangers also placed boulders in the stream to keep off-roaders from venturing upstream.

To further protect the toads, Cowie proposed building a bridge over the creek so cabin owners could access their lots without driving through the stream. He also proposed reducing the number of parking areas in Pine Creek tract and closing some of the roads that had been wildcatted over the years. Those recommendations have now been forwarded to Fish and Wildlife for review.

"They'll either send us back a biological opinion that says, 'Yes, we agree,' or 'No, we think you should do this or that,' " says Cowie, who refuses to speculate how Fish and Wildlife will rule.

"I have no idea how they think or what their recommendation might be," he says. "But whatever their biological opinion is, whatever it says, we would comply with."

The trouble is, cabin owners like Fescina have never dealt with Fish and Wildlife before and frankly don't know what to expect. Their concerns are hardly allayed by the fact -- confirmed by Galvin, the conservation biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity -- that Fish and Wildlife helped the environmental group compile its lawsuit against the Forest Service.

"This could be quite dangerous for us," says the cabin owner who asked not to be identified. "It turns out, it's the Fish and Wildlife people who are making the waves. The Forest Service is sort of caught in the middle between them and a group in Tucson."

A response from Fish and Wildlife isn't expected before fall. But even if officials there agree with Cowie's modest proposals, the uncertainty in Pine Creek may not be over.

Separately, the Forest Service is in negotiations with the Center for Biological Diversity to settle the group's suit against the service. But Galvin says the group is not impressed with the Forest Service's actions to date -- and its patience is wearing out.

"The Forest Service has done a bunch of things," Galvin says. "But all in all we think it's just baby steps towards what needs to happen.

"We're reaching a point where we either have to come to a settlement shortly or move forward with our case and file a motion for a preliminary injunction...halting all activities on the national forest."

What implications would an injunction have for Pine Creek residents?

"Our position would be that recreational residences should not be occupied during the injunction period, because there are a lot of big problems with the arroyo toads," Galvin says.


BACK IN PINE CREEK, things are strangely quiet. Perhaps it's because the eviction threat remains a big if. Perhaps it's because Ranger Cowie's talk of wanting to "work with both sides" gives the cabin owners hope. Whatever the reason, there seems to be little organized effort by the permit holders to lobby the government agencies that are deciding their fate.

Of course, the task of mobilizing Pine Creek is complicated by the fact that some owners are trying to sell their properties and reluctant to draw too much attention to the tract's plight.

"Not everybody is up here for the love of the cabin," says Fescina. "Some people would like to double their money and get out."

What's the worst-case scenario for the residents of Pine Creek? Nobody is sure. Some cabin owners believe that if the government decided to force some or all of the residents out, the earliest they could be kicked out without compensation would be 2008, when their current permits expire. Others believe the deadline would be 2016 or 2018.

But Ervin at the National Forest Homeowners association, who admits he is not following the Pine Creek controversy closely, says the normal timetables may not apply.

"It gets a little confusing when we begin wrangling with the Endangered Species Act, whether they could in fact give them less than ten years' notice and not have to pay compensation," Ervin says.

Of course, the worst-case scenario may never materialize. If Cowie's proposal to forge a win-win solution for toads and cabin owners gets the support of Fish and Wildlife, the permit holders in Pine Creek may continue to enjoy their cabins for many years and only have to make small or short-term accommodations to neighboring wildlife.

"We haven't seen any cabin owners lose their permits," says Ervin. "But we know of cases, not engendered by this set of lawsuits, where cabin owners are not allowed to use an access road to their cabin a part of the year when the red squirrel is mating. That's not an acceptable situation, but it's a whole lot better than tearing the cabin down."

Fescina says she still has "high hopes" that the cabin owners will be able to stay. In the meantime, she says she doesn't share the distrust of the Forest Service that many of her neighbors harbor.

"The Forest Service let me rebuild after my cabin burned down, so I am not one of the people who thinks the Forest Service is out to get me. But Fish and Wildlife, I just don't know."

The only thing Fescina knows is this: If the feds force her out, a part of her family's history will be gone forever. Only the memories and the debt will remain.

"No matter what happens," she says, "I'm going to be paying for it for the next 25 years of my life."

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