Monday, October 22, 2018 — The managers of the four Southern California national forest units are increasingly closing roads and even walk-in access to vast areas of public lands, often in direct conflict of their own forest plans and policy guidelines. Hunters are frequently the most impacted by fall-winter restrictions.
There is always some guise for the closures that really can’t be justified in their plans and policies for more than a very short duration.
Closures because of fires usually revolve around the excuse of public safety and/or resource protection after a burn. In the San Bernardino National Forest, the entire 31,000-acre Lake Fire and adjoining areas in and around the San Gorgonio Wilderness was closed for two years to all public access using those two excuses. The fire was in 2015 and the area was finally reopened to the public this year after being closed for over two years — including two entire hunting seasons.
The relatively small (1,300-acre) Valley Fire earlier this year was effectively contained in a matter of days, but it led to the closure of nearly the entire San Gorgonio Wilderness (95,000 acres) to protect public safety. The closure was slated to last through the end of the year. This would have effectively locked deer hunters out of the best part of the D14 hunting zone for a third year in a row.
But it wasn’t the hunters who made the forest staff finally reverse their moronic closure, it was the hiking community. Hundreds of people had their wilderness permits cancelled, and they lit up phones and rattled the cages of their local federal representatives. The closure was lifted.
In the nearby Angeles National Forest, an access road across the top of Liebre Mountain — a major connecting route — has now been closed for over two years. Last year, when I called the local ranger district offices, I was told this main route was closed because of a “major washout” on the road. This year, the route was still closed. So, as a local newspaper reporter, I started calling and e-mailing, also asking about this road closure: Why was it closed? Under what authority was it closed? When would it be reopening? I also asked about two other major routes through the Angeles — a closed route on Sawmill Mountain which connected to the Liebre Mountain road and would have given continues access across the top of these two mountains between paved routes.
I also asked about the closed Old Ridge Route. This was once the only paved access connecting Los Angeles with the San Joaquin Valley to the north. This route was abandoned by Los Angeles County a few years ago because it didn’t seem a good use of road maintenance funds with Interstate 5 paralleling it just a few miles to the west. But I wanted to know why the USFS also abandoned the route and blocked it off and both ends because it provided good access to a vast area of the forest.
After three weeks of stalling, and my repeated reminders by phone and e-mail that I still had not had a response, I finally received a short e-mail from Jamahl Butler, the district ranger:
Thank you for your patience and for calling my office regarding forest road 7N23 and the associated closed gates, forest road 7N08 and the Old Ridge Route.
These roads, and a number of other forest roads are inaccessible for safety and resource protection needs. In reviewing our records, these roads have been closed for a number of years. Also, each of them did not show up on any of the three previous ANF motor vehicle use maps. Due to the aforementioned concerns, the gates will continue to be closed to avoid safety risks to the public until the necessary repairs are completed.
Curiously, the only road of the three not shown on the 2018 motor vehicle use map is the Old Ridge Route. Is this an attempt to suggest the roads closures are permanent by misleading a reporter in hopes that I would spread this misinformation and the public would just quit asking about why historically open major routes had been closed?
With a few more phone calls, I found out there are apparently no repairs scheduled on any of the two closed roads. This would suggest the roads can never be opened because the “safety and resource protection needs” will never be remedied.
I was also not provided the forest orders necessary to close these roads, which I requested. Under all USFS forest plans, including the Angeles National Forest Plan, there must be a forest order for any temporary road or access closure (a “forest order” signed by the district ranger or superintendent). These closures may not be long-term or permanent. A closure lasting more than a few months would require a public scoping process and an amendment to the Forest Plan. So Butler’s response was clearly misinformation.
These are just two examples of dozens of restrictions on public access in this region that are spreading like wildfires. Short version of a long, sad, ongoing story: The USFS bureaucrats are locking the public out of our public lands and facing no repercussions for their actions.
Motives for these actions can be argued and debated. The fact that it is primarily happening in Southern California might just mean the USFS staff simply are overwhelmed by the impact 30 million people are having on these four forests (Angeles, San Bernardino, Cleveland, and the southern Los Padres), and so the simple solution is to lock the public out of vast areas of public lands to reduce problems and workload. This is best done quietly so the public doesn’t rise up and protest and demand the agency follows its own rules and mandates and keep these public lands open to the public.