A place that offers up backcountry camping, horseback riding, boating and more. What happens when the borders of these protected lands get blurred? Cleveland National Forest is known as “The Land of Many Uses” and these uses go beyond outdoor recreation. Stretching out across San Diego, Riverside and Orange counties, the National Forest bears the scars from the growing development in southern California. At first glance you see the beauty of wilderness sprawling out from beyond the city. It feels like you have shut the door to urban California. Leaving a lasting impression on me almost ten years ago when I first experienced the remoteness it held. One that has grown with my appreciation for what these places provide. Allowing us to step outside of our world and into the boundaries of wilderness here is why I chose to explore and talk about its health. This past month has been filled with trips out to this forest, looking for the heart of this landscape. It takes time, visits and understanding to see the problems these areas face.
Here is where my month in “The Land of Many Uses” lead me.
With what seemed like endless rain, there were a few days I had shut the hiking down. Jumping in the van, I took off down Ortega Highway through the Trubaco Canyon Ranger District. The viewpoints and turnouts, abundantly strung along the highway, gave me ample opportunity to pull off and snap some photos. Approaching from the west via Interstate 5, you immerse yourself in the mountains after leaving the suburbs of San Juan Capistrano. Upon entering the National Forest, the
views of California development are mostly left behind. While standing just off the road and capturing the moments that light floods out over the mountains, I found myself standing next to a pile of garbage.
It wasn’t long before I was at the next stop picking up more trash. The pattern continued and really isn’t anything new, but it struck something in me as I stood, looking off to the the northern snow capped ranges. There was a constant hum of cars behind me and glaring lights from the city below. The commuters came in a hoard up the hill likes ants going to the colony. I began to think of how pretty Lake Elsinore would be, just surrounded by trees. At this point my mind had already gone back to the map of Cleveland National Forest and the distinct breaks in land. The thing about having a relationship with nature is that modern society has made it very Yin and Yang. The beauty of these landscapes and constantly encountering the impact we have on them.
The solitude of nature is a big reason I try not to go to the popular trails on weekends. However, I broke that rule to explore Cedar Creek Falls (Descano Ranger District) and the interactions people have with it. As you approach the falls, the hum of water fills the air. Rounding the last corner you discover the source, barreling down 80 feet into a plunge pool and an audience filled with reverence. The feeling of being here is awe-inspiring. Resting and enjoying the feeling of getting my gear off, I took in the elements around me. People came and went, all having smiles and happy greetings with each other. I got to watch as one of the most import interactions as a society occurred. A collective of strangers in the sanctity of nature. Coming from different places and cultures, here by their own inspirations. We were all respecting the peace we had created in the forest. Becoming part of the natural processes and reveling in the opportunity to observe it.
The effect of these interactions go beyond us as humans and the thought of losing the ability to have them is a real possibility. As we face further loss of natural lands across the globe, the repercussions are visible in our backyards. Cleveland National Forest is a prime example of what forest fragmentation looks like. In 1893, two years after the passing of the Forest Reserve Act, one of the first Forest Reserves and the earliest part of Cleveland National Forest was created with the designation of 50 thousand acres in the Trubaco Cañon (Alig, Ralph J, et al). This was a vital step to safeguarding our natural resources.
Over the years there was growing support for protected lands. President Roosevelt had added onto Trubaco Canyon and the San Jacinto Reserve before combining them with Palomar and Laguna Mountains creating 1,904,826 acres of Cleveland National Forest in 1907 (Alig, Ralph J, et al). The current total amount of Cleveland National Forest is drastically lower than the almost two million acres it used to be. The area of the National Forest in 2022 was down to a astonishing 465,000 acres (California Wilderness Coalition). Some of the forest was transferred to San Bernardino National Forest, but the total loss of land in Cleveland National Forest is over 800,000 acres adding up to more than the entire state of Rhode Island.
The effects of forest fragmentation are clear with the configuration of land. What used to be one connected stream of undeveloped forest has turned into sectioned off parcels. In a paper published back in the the early 2000s, there was research to support the extent of impact this can have on an environment. Forest fragmentation is referenced as the main threat to terrestrial biodiversity (Alig, Ralph J, et al). As land keeps getting handed over to private ownership for land development, the impact bleeds into everything connected to it. Animals are not just losing a home, they lose the ability to leave their home. The mountain lion (Puma concolor) has a home range of 100 square miles on average (Mountain Lion Foundation). Eventually when they mature, these new adults will need to set off and find their own bounds. With the fragmentation of their habitat, this makes it extremely difficult for any animal with a large range to travel without human conflict.
These include events such as automobile strikes, a common occurrence, that are often fatal. The San Joaquin kit fox (Vulpes macrotis mutica) is a good example of an endangered species that faces extinction due to excessive development. Causing a constant, steady decline as an effect of losing their dispersal routes.
Forest fragmentation, development and even road construction are taking their toll on this landscape. When looking at the entirety of Cleveland National Forest for days on end, I kept focussing on the greyed out squares of land on the map. Some occurred deep in the forest, but the majority were located along the edges. These quiet deletions of protected land were developed and sold off to the highest bidder. From 2001 to 2017 the United States had lost 24 million acres of its natural terrain (Volcovici). This trend is compounded with data from the Multi-Resolution Land Characteristics (MRLC) Consortium showing that land development across Orange, Riverside and San Diego has consistently increased from 2001 to 2019 (MRLC NLCD Eva Tool). The question now is, how do we stop the progression?
We need to make sure that our voices are being heard. One of the major issues threatening the stability of this area falls on underfunding from congress (California Wilderness Coalition). Signing petitions, voting and even writing your policy makers are great ways to make sure that you are being heard. This is hard to tackle alone and won’t go far without support. Try to get your friends, family and entire communities to join in. Let our officials know that we want these places to last and keep providing for the wildlife as well as us. The importance of a healthy ecosystem is too great to not start implementing more change now.
A big contribution to progress is making sustainable changes at home. Conserving water here in southern California is extremely important. I know it how good a long shower can be after getting home from a brutal hike, but cutting it back will go a long way. Along with scaling down your single use plastics. For those who stock up on bottled water, you can have a filter put on your faucet and get a reusable bottle! For the ones that are prepared for earthquakes and other natural disasters, you can get large water storage containers from almost anywhere that has camping supplies.
Keep an eye out through social media for events in your area. Conservation groups of any size will likely have pages to follow to let people stay up to date with their efforts and events they are hosting. Cleanups are a common way people get together to make a difference and you don’t even need to wait for a group to host one. Get your friends together for a hike and bring some trash bags. This gets you out to your favorite areas and helps them stay healthy for your future visits. Also, tell everyone about the things you learn from these experiences.
Education is a key portion of conservation. Getting to work closely with the Judith A. Bassett Canid Education and Conservation Center gave me the confidence to start sharing the things I know and keep growing from this work. My first true discovery was that I knew hardly anything. My second was that anyone can learn. Reaching out to organizations and getting involved familiarized me with the importance of this passing of information. It is just as necessary to be educating ourselves, as it is to share the knowledge we obtain with others. I have the pleasure of being surrounded by people who will listen to me go on for hours about every detail of the interesting things I find. With the hopes that everyone I speak with will take away something to help them connect more with nature and appreciate its value.
Facing off with these issues can seem daunting and even impossible at times, but having a community to support you is a great way to stay positive about taking action. My biggest goal with telling the stories of our natural landscapes is to encourage people to connect with one another and work towards becoming a conduit of change. Along with the other resources I want to share with you to get involved, I’m going to ask you to stay engaged here. Fostering the idea that through logic, reasoning and education, change can be ignited.
To all the readers: I welcome your input, support and involvement with the continuation of Into the Spires. I appreciate every single person person who takes the time to make the work I put into this part of their day.
Below you will find a list organizations from global reach to the areas around San Diego that you can get involved with. Also I have provided links to contact the political officials for your state to ask for legislative changes to protect all natural land now.
California Wilderness Coalition. “Get to Know the Cleveland NF.” California Wilderness Coalition, California Wilderness Coalition Https://Www.calwild.org/Wp-Content/Uploads/2022/01/20211204_101019-1024x461.Jpg, 31 Jan. 2022, https://www.calwild.org/calwild-team-explores-the-cleveland-nf/.
Volcovici, Valerie. “U.S. Has Lost 24 Million Acres of Natural Land in 16 Years: Independent Report.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 6 Aug. 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-environment-publicland/u-s-has-lost-24-million-acres-of-natural-land-in-16-years-independent-report-idUSKCN1UW0A8.
Alig, Ralph J, et al. “Changes In Land Use, Forest Fragmentation, and Policy Responses.” Forest Service U.S.D.A., 21 Mar. 2023, https://www.fs.usda.gov/pnw/publications/changes-land-use-forest-fragmentation-and-policy-responses.
“MRLC NLCD Eva Tool.” EVA Tool, https://www.mrlc.gov/eva/.
Mountain Lion Foundation. “About Mountain Lions.” Mountain Lion Foundation, 22 Apr. 2021, https://mountainlion.org/about-mountain-lions/frequently-asked-questions/.