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Judge kills national forest road plan

Ruling states public roads through wilderness could hurt, threaten endangered species

Posted: September 30, 2009 10:10 p.m.
Updated: October 1, 2009 4:55 a.m.
 
A federal judge on Wednesday scrapped U.S. Forest Service plans to allow roads through rugged stretches of two national forests around the Santa Clarita Valley, saying the plans could harm critical wildlife habitat and the endangered species that live there.

Environmentalists hailed the court victory, which they said could have long-term effects on firefighting and the state’s water supply.

U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel sided with multiple environmental groups that claim the U.S. Forest Service violated federal laws when it radically changed its management plan for the Angeles, Los Padres, San Bernardino and Cleveland national forests.

The Santa Clarita Valley sits wedged between the Angeles and Los Padres National Forests.

“Some of the most wild and pristine areas of southern California’s national forests were given a second chance with this court decision,” said Ileene Anderson, Public Lands Director for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the involved environmental groups.

“These areas provide critically important strongholds for endangered species such as steelhead (trout), the California condor and the arroyo toad.”

Angeles National Forest officials declined to comment on the orders of the National Forest Service in Washington, D.C.

The case centered on a policy that allowed unmarked and undocumented roads to be transformed into forest service roads where off-road vehicle traffic was allowed.

At contention was a process for transforming what Anderson calls “illegal roads” into forest service roads. It was a complex mix of Forest Service policy and California laws on road access.

Off-road enthusiasts, who repeatedly drove a stretch of the forest, created what lawyers and planners call a prescriptive easement. The act can give rights to the driver to use the road permanently. The Forest Service management plan codified this process by including these roads in their forest management plan, Anderson said.

“They legitimized these illegal roads,” she said.

In the process, crucial habitat was threatened and endangered species were encroached on.

“These illegal roads increase fire danger,” Anderson said.

She also cited concerns that vehicles using the rugged roadways could spark wildfires.

The traffic also speeds erosion and can contaminate runoff that would naturally serve the communities adjacent to the forest, she said.

“Water supply for the adjacent communities is becoming more and more important as California’s water crisis continues,” she said.

The Wilderness Society and Earthjustice were also involved in the case.

The forest service will have about a month and a half to submit a new plan that would conform to federal laws protecting endangered species and wildlife habitat.

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