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The Land of Many Uses

Cleveland National Forest Welcome Sign from Westbound Highway 74
Cleveland National Forest Welcome Sign from Westbound Highway 74

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.

A view from Dripping Springs Trail out towards Wildhorse Mountain.
Dripping Springs Trail in Agua Tibia Wilderness

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.

Illegal trash dumping at a turnout off of Ortega Highway

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.

Stream of cars coming up Ortega Highway from Lake Elsinore

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.

Looking up at Cedar Creek Falls from the lower viewing area.
Cedar Creek Falls

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.

Development in parcel of land that use was redesignated
Development in parcel of land that use was redesignated

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.

Development in parcel of land that use was redesignated