Conservation groups filed suit on Oct. 25 against the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), accusing the agency of illegally dismissing their concerns about the impact to wildlife, water quality, and low-impact recreation of new management plans for the Los Padres National Forest and three other Southern California forests.
Last April, the USFS approved the new plans for the Los Padres, Angeles, San Bernardino, and Cleveland national forests. The plans detail which activities will be encouraged in different zones of the forests over the next decade.
In essence, the plans add another layer of zoning in addition to the current zoning, which protects and restricts use in the forest depending on its remoteness and biological importance. More than 50 percent of the 1.75-million-acre forest is designated wilderness, which receives the highest level of protection, said Jim Turner, Los Padres Forest Planner.
Los Padres ForestWatch and eight other groups find fault with the plan because they say new zoning contradicts the current protections and could lead to development of 74 percent of the area still designated as roadless, said Jeff Kuyper, executive director of the Santa Barbara-based Los Padres ForestWatch.
"This forest is important for its wildlife, its
recreation opportunities. It's also the source of clean drinking water for our local community," Kuyper said. "And all three of these things are threatened anytime we allow more development in the national forest."
But Turner said Los Padres has no plans to pursue any kind of development of roadless areas in the forest, and, besides, national regulations wouldn't allow them to do so.
"The forest has no authority to build a road in a roadless area, regardless of zoning," Turner said.
In September, a California judge overturned the Bush administration's efforts to open up the country's 58 million acres of roadless forest to logging and oil drilling. The ruling reinstated the Clinton administration's 2001 regulation prohibiting any motorized activity in these areas.
But Kuyper said that strong local management is the only way to protect national forests because the recent ruling could be overturned by a higher court.
The conservation groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club, filed an administrative appeal in July, asking the agency to reconsider the management plans.
The U.S. Forest Service rejected their appeal because it said the appeal came in a day after the deadline. In their lawsuit, the conservation groups say the appeal came in a day before the deadline, which makes the agency's dismissal illegal.
"It's clear to us that we did everything we needed to do to satisfy all the filing requirements," Kuyper said. "It seems clear to us that they're trying to avoid addressing our appeal and [are] tossing it out on a technicality."