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Local Access Issue Affects Climbers Nationwide


Submitted by ladysmith on 2007-01-30

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by Jeff Brown


PBS station link: http://www.kpbs.org/fullfocus/

Debate airing locally in San Diego on Monday January 29, 2007 at 6:30pm and 11pm

Dear public,

The reason for sending this information out is because I strongly feel that a "local" National Forest really belongs to all citizens, that the numerous individual divisions of the National Forest at large are actually part of a bigger whole, an entire ecosystem that not only belongs to all of us, but also "includes" all of us...because the National Forest is very much a part of our "human environment"!

So I am very upset to see the Forest Service now proposing "sanctioned regulatory closures" under the guise of "needed protections" for nesting raptors which go well beyond voluntary advisory closures used throughout other National Forest lands, National Monuments, and National Parks. I very strongly feel this decision is being disguised as a necessary and simple practical measure to "protect sensitive nesting raptors", when this is not the case. I feel that reasonable measures to protect species that actually do need protections are acceptable . . . even welcome. Over-reaching measures that rely on speculative conjecture, instead of well-founded scientific principles and effective "established" precedent, are not!

The Cleveland National Forest (CNF) proposals to enact sanctioned regulatory closures for "protection" of raptors from December 1st to May 30th of every year at Corte Madera Mountain, El Cajon Mountain, Eagle Peak, and Rock Mountain are not necessary. Concerned citizens should review the proposals (attached at bottom), comparing them with the Forest Service' press release in the Union Tribune and the The North County Times, and their most recent post on their web-site of 1/10/07 . . . and then READ BETWEEN THE LINES.

Something here is not right!

One example is in their most recent web-site post in which they only mention these closures being implemented for "[the protections of] Golden Eagles and Prairie Falcons." The actual proposals are exceedingly broad and state "as well as other cliff-nesting species". Unless challenged, these proposals will ban ALL human activity within 2,640 feet in all directions of any current or future golden eagles' or prairie falcons' nests, and potentially any "other cliff-nesting species" nest, even though these "other" species types are not explicitly identified. These measures are partly based on the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (created in 1918 to stop the "indiscriminate slaughter" of migratory birds by market hunters and others) which includes over 800 birds, some as common as the swallow & hummingbird. That seems like an awful lot of "other cliff-nesting species" That the Forest Service automatically feels they have the legal authority to invoke the MBTA, an act that applies specifically to commerce, to restrict recreational activities is just one example of the problems with the Forest Service' proposals . . . there are many more!

Popular local hiking trails in Jerry Schad's "Afoot and Afield In San Diego County" which will be closed (even though the Forest Service states, "No official trails or roads are within the proposed closure areas. The proposed closure areas are cliff areas and rock outcroppings in the vicinity of recently used and alternate nest sites."):

Other areas affected (sorry no links): El Cap on El Cajon Mountain, and Rock Mountain to the North East of El Cajon Mountain, closing access to many trails and fabulous vistas, including the planned Trans-County Trail, aka Sea-to-Sea Trail which eventually heads East across the San Diego River near Cedar Creek Falls.

Let me explain. Launched on 12/11/06 for a public comment period (scoping process), with a deadline of 1/12/07, these measures were not originally posted on their web-site for the public to see. Only after considerable pressure, did the CNF lengthen the comment period to 1/31/07, and place the proposals on their web-site. And now, in response to negative opposition to these proposals, they seem to be engaged in a public relations battle to seek public approval, even though they didn't at first actively seek the public's opinion.

Neither the latest CNF post of 1/10/07 or their latest press releases openly tell us that these proposals will extend closures to 2,640 feet in all directions from a single nest site, well beyond the already effectively established 330 foot buffer zones for Golden Eagles. It is this measure that will close the popular hiking trails illustrated above, even though the CNF would have us believe no hiking trails will be affected with their statement of not affecting "official" trails. How is this possible? Because of what they also leave out of their public comments. That is, it is the public's right to hike in their National Forest either on a trail or off, UNLESS officially posted otherwise. And the fact is, most of the wonderful trails you've probably been on in San Diego county within your National Forest, though dating back decades in some cases, are simply not "official" trails.

Factually -- As mentioned, if these closures are enacted the very popular hiking trail to the top of Corte Madera Mountain which is identified in Jerry Schad's "Afoot and Afield in San Diego County" hiking guide, even though it is not an "official" trail, WILL BE CLOSED from December 1st to May 30th of every year, and even though this is unnecessary! http://www.sdreader.com/php/roamshow.php?id=20051117

Factually -- The Eagle Peak closure is approximately two miles long, one mile wide, and encompasses over 1000 acres, including the Three Sisters Waterfalls, another popular area from "Afoot and Afield", and one of the two most popular hikes on twenty miles of Boulder Creek Road, even though this too is an unofficial trail. Two miles of Boulder Creek below the falls are also included in the closure. Additionally, a mile long stretch of Boulder Creek above the falls would then also be closed because of lack of access from upstream due to private property. http://www.fs.fed.us/r5/cleveland/projects/projects/seasonal-closures/closureeagle.pdf

Additionally, as is the case with Corte Madera Mountain (illustrated next), in looking at the maps for Eagle Peak, something is not right! The northern boundary on the map appears to be drawn to avoid including the trail to Eagle Peak proper, yet this boundary line is less than 600 feet from the top and is clearly within the guidelines for the closure which calls for 2,640 feet in all directions from nest sites, making this boundary in conflict with the proposal's standard and therefore arbitrary.

In Corte Madera Mountain's case, if the Forest Service were to have correctly placed their circle-of-closure on the Corte Madera map per a known Falcon nest site (and presumed historical Eagles' Nests) it would clearly have encompassed the popular Espinosa "off-roader's" trail. We should all ask ourselves why this circle was moved back away from the off-roader's trail.

In reviewing the proposal maps in question, one will see the profoundly arbitrary nature of the boundary limits relative to the cliff face where the nests are located (note the densely stacked topo lines on the map which represents the cliff face, and that the Espinosa off-road trail is to the South, below the cliff face): http://www.fs.fed.us/r5/cleveland/projects/projects/seasonal-closures/closurecorte.pdf

It seems difficult to conclude that restricting an area to passive uses like climbing and hiking in a stated effort to "protect" nesting birds while allowing the frequent weekend off-road activity by noisy un-mufflered ATV's and dirt-bikes to continue unabated within the actual distance of the defined boundary limits in the proposals to be anything other than . . . MISGUIDED AND WRONG!

According to Joan Wynn, spokesperson for CNF, the Golden Eagle's population in San Diego County has plummeted over the last 100 years from an estimated 108 pairs to 53 pairs, and the Prairie Falcon's population is at 20 to 30 pairs, making it one of the county's scarcest birds. But these claims too are very misleading.

These remarks would have us believe the birds are in danger of extirpation, drastic measures being necessary. This is not the case. That the Prairie Falcon population is small in San Diego County is very normal for our area because San Diego is at the Southern fringe of the Prairie Falcon's range. The falcon populations in our region have always been low. The proposals themselves note the Prairie Falcon population within San Diego County to be quite stable. And though the Golden Eagle numbers are low, they too are not in danger. We have to remember that an entire century is a very long time. It would be nice to have more eagles, but it would also be nice to have the undeveloped acreage of 100 years ago as well. The point is, though low in numbers, neither of these birds is identified as being sensitive in the CNF by the USFS: http://www.fs.fed.us/r5/projects/sensitive-species/sensitive-animals.pdf

Decreased Golden Eagle populations have not been scientifically linked to recreation, including rock climbing. Population losses are, however, empirically linked to habitat loss due to development, logging, electrocution from landing on power lines, accidental poisoning from eating poison ladened rodents, and disease. What is disturbing, as it relates to the USFS's handling of the Golden Eagle's habitat, is that while they want to heavily regulate what little areas we have left in our National Forest to recreate in peaceful co-existence with wildlife and raptors, they routinely let loggers, miners, and developers remove eagle nesting habitat during non-nesting season, even if an eagle nest was used within this habitat during the very last nesting season. The USFS only requires that the operation wait until the eagle's young have fledged from the nest. Yet they want to close access to recreational use during the same nesting season, even if an eagles nest is not being actively used . . . year, after year, after year!

In a time when children are becoming less fit and unhealthy, and families are spending less quality time with each other in the real world of nature (due primarily to the commercial exploitation for corporate profits of everyone's already limited time in our busy modern world), we should implore the Forest Service to do the right thing and take these measures off the table. We need to be able to spend time by ourselves and with our families in "the great outdoors". We need to be able to engage our children in outdoor activities such as climbing and hiking, building healthier bodies and stronger bonds that are both familial, and interconnected with our natural world. This is the legacy our Forest Service should leave to future generations . . . the ability to engage in a real world experience with nature, not the alternative of increased usage of video games and reliance on "virtual" reality! What the Forest Service should be doing is working harder to fight off the logging, mining, and developing while actively promoting passive recreation uses on forest lands per their own mandate & mission statement: http://www.fs.fed.us/aboutus/mission.shtml

Also of interest, in Corte Madera's case, is that though the Forest Service' post says they are only doing this for "recently used" nests, according to Dave Bittner (third reference in proposals), no Eagles' have nested on this mountain in over fifteen years! According the proposals own data, "Utah Field Office Guidelines for Protection of Raptors from Human and Land Use Disturbances", Romin & Muck, the term active would only apply to nests that have been used at least once in the last seven years.

Furthermore, according to Pete Bloom, ecologist and raptor biologist with Bloom Biological, Inc., an independent raptor consulting firm with an extensive background in research work on Golden Eagle populations and habitat in Southern California, "if [the] eagles haven't nested in [the last] fifteen years, they are not coming back . . . period." Bloom attributes this to what he considers too significant a loss in the eagles support habitat, which, he said, most likely has to do with surrounding housing and other development. Bloom further says that though this sort of development may not be visibly adjacent to an eagles' nesting location, if a previously key foraging area even 10 to 30 miles away is removed or otherwise negatively impacted, the raptors simply move on to better hunting areas in response to that loss. Therefore, the extreme measure of closing this mountain in the hope that Golden Eagles will return . . . seems to be pure folly!

In the Union Tribune article Dave Bittner, Director of the Wildlife Research Institute is quoted as saying "It only takes one disturbance at the wrong time to ruin the entire nesting season," and he implies that this disturbance could come from climbers or hikers. Similarly, Phil Unitt, curator of the birds and mammals department at the San Diego Natural History Museum would have us believe, "One of the primary concerns is people rock climbing, which could bring them very near the nest sites. If people are climbing cliff faces and the birds fly away during that time, then the young could become chilled, vulnerable to other predators . . . or just not get fed enough." In the North County Times piece Tom Stephan of Ramona, acting president of the California Raptor Advancement Group, apparently counters the need to have closures for anything other than actual climbing, saying "People walking down below them at the base of cliffs aren't going to bother them." Though he echoes what the other Proponents in these articles want us to believe, "It's rock climbing that is 99 percent of the problem. They (the birds) demand seclusion. They demand isolation. And they can't get it if people are climbing around their nests." And yet, with all of those claims, by so many spokespersons and "experts", not a single shred of factual evidence is ever provided . . . only speculative conjecture!

It really does appear that there is no problem of climbers climbing into nests and causing unsuccessful nesting seasons. Believe me, I looked hard, dug deep, and could find none. Not even within the proposals themselves, which claim this to be the reason for the measures in the first place.

Contrary to what they would have the public believe, climbers are one of the most environmentally responsible groups who frequent the forest. They routinely volunteer for trail building and clean-ups on public lands, often footing the bill from their own pockets. And when it comes to actual climbing when the raptors are nesting, their code of ethic dictates that they do not knowingly climb into or too closely around active nests. Climbers are not the threat our Forest Service would have you believe and actually have a long history of bringing issue about intentions of government agencies to the forefront of public knowledge. I would like to remind everyone reading this that it was one of this Nation's earliest climbers who, in addition to establishing many bold first ascents (one of which, on Cathedral Peak in Tuolumne Meadows, is still one of our country's most popular climbing routes), is directly responsible for what is now known as Yosemite National Park, indeed one of this Nation's most valued natural wonders and National treasures!

All of these "expert" claims appear to evaporate when one does a little digging. In lieu of what the following information suggests, this sort of thing really only applies to botched research and banning practices. When it comes to the general presence of humans and recreation, quite the contrary seems to be true. According to Raptors of Western North America, Wheeler 2003, falcons exhibit little fear of humans during nesting season. Indeed, Scott Weidensaul, The Raptor Almanac, 2000, states, "With Chicks in the nest, adults will sometimes tolerate an astonishing degree of disturbance, including humans climbing into the nest to ban the young. At times, people have moved entire nests out of harm's way without the adults deserting."

Furthermore, the danger to nesting Prairie Falcons that the Forest Service and "experts" would have us believe occurs every time someone waltzes up to a crag, apparently only arises with ornithologist's and biologist's actions during research observations:

Anderson & Squires, "The Prairie Falcon" 1997 -- "If raptors are suddenly frightened and leave the nest site in a panic, they can inadvertently crush or puncture eggs or can eject eggs or young from the nest in their excitement. It is only natural for a person eager to observe a nesting raptor closely to approach the nest site very quietly. However, the raptor may not notice you until you are quite close; this causes the bird to burst out of the nest site, possibly destroying or catapulting the eggs or young. It is far better to let the bird know you are approaching the nest site by making noises, such as clapping, singing, and whistling, or to advance toward the nest in the line of sight. The noise should be slight at first, then become progressively louder when nearing the nest, until the adult leaves the eyrie. The bird then becomes aware of your presence before you are perceived to be an extreme threat."

So what actually seems to be the case is that, unless you are a stealth hiker, climber, or general rec-user who very quietly sneaks up to a cliff or rock face, never utters a word and engages only in hand signaling during your outdoor activities (never mind climbers with their clanging gear and essential verbal commands of on & off-belay), the likelihood of causing a "disturbance" so severe as to "ruin an entire nesting season" is . . . zilch! In fact, according to Wheeler, Raptors of Western North America, 2003, falcons are actually "quite tolerant of human disturbance during nesting and it is only intense, prolonged disturbance which forces adults to abandon nest sites."

I submit to you that, since large areas of OUR National Forests are already restricted from us by being routinely fenced off for mining, logging, and grazing, ANY discussions prior to a decision to move forward with access closure proposals which would further limit our use for recreation should ALWAYS include ALL recreation users. Furthermore, these types of decisions should draw on a broad base of CURRENT knowledge rather than outdated references, include recommendations from MULTIPLE experts OUTSIDE the Forest Service (certainly more than numerous closed door discussions with just the single subjective consultant voice of Dave Bittner -- see third ref. in proposals), should ALWAYS be done in an above-board manner, and should ALWAYS take great pains to consider the USFS mission statement: http://www.fs.fed.us/aboutus/mission.shtml

If this had been the case (that the Forest Service included multiple rec-users, current data, and MULTIPLE independent objective expert opinions, etc.), I'm confident REASON would have prevailed, resulting in a responsible and respectful solution having been developed. Most likely, a decision reliant on precedent, established public lands management policy, and sound science [rather than extremism] would have been made. The outcome being proposals establishing seasonal closure buffers of 330 feet for active eagle nests and those that are in-active for up to seven years based on the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act [period...not fifteen years...nothing beyond seven]; posted site "advisories" to general recreation users to avoid active prairie falcon nests from the beginning of February to the end of June; and posted site "advisories" to climbers to refrain from climbing within 300 feet of active prairie falcon nests during the same period (as is the case at The Pinnacles for individually located prairie falcon nests; Gavin Emmons, Raptor Biologist & Jim Petterson, Wildlife Biologist, Pinnacles National Monument).

In closing, it is you, average joe-citizen who needs to decide how to respond to the Forest Service' Closure Proposals. READ THEM CAREFULLY and READ BETWEEN THE LINES . . . something is clearly a miss!

Corte Madera Mountain & El Cajon Mountain:

Rock Mountain & Eagle Peak:

Thank you!
joe-citizen (jeff brown)

p.s. Following are some specifics about the Species of Special Concern list that the Forest Service seems to feel they are justified in using when explaining their decision to move forward with these "protective" measures.

First off, the "Bird Species of Special Concern" list is a state-by-state list determination by individual state agencies and for California it can be found here: http://www.dfg.ca.gov/hcpb/species/ssc/sscbird/sscbird.shtml for the California Department of Fish and Game, which is under the Department Of The Interior, not the United States Department Of Agriculture (USDA), which is the federal agency responsible for administering to the National Forest. (side-not of additional importance: Fish and Game, National Parks, and the BLM come under The Department Of The Interior (DOI), the National Forest falls under the USDA).

The USDA Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Region, Sensitive Animal Species by Forest can be found here: http://www.fs.fed.us/r5/projects/sensitive-species/sensitive-animals.pdf and lists only the San Diego Cactus Wren, Greater Sage Grouse, and Great Gray Owl as "Sensitive" within the Cleveland National Forest. Not the Golden Eagle or Prairie Falcon.

Nevertheless, since agencies do look to each other for guidance, a couple of key points from the "Species of Special Concern" list should be noted:

1) As stated by the Dept. of Fish and Game:

* -- "This list is intended for use as a management tool and for information; species of special concern have no special legal status." [That is correct, "no special legal status". In the case of the Golden Eagle, legal protections relative to recreation are primarily provided due to specific interpretations of the word "take", afforded under the Golden Eagle Protection Act. Prairie Falcons get legal protections, only relative to commerce and out-right killing (as in shooting, etc.), under the MBTA -- see below for links to these acts: # 5 for MBTA, bottom for Golden Eagle Protection Act. Note that these proposals clearly state the Forest Service intends to create these closures, believing they have the ability to do so, under, "legal authority of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, and in accordance with the direction provided in the Cleveland National Forest Land Management Plan (USDA Forest Service 2005)" -- see attached "Closure Comment Sample Letter" for arguments to the latter.]

* -- "The species of special concern list is divided into three categories: Highest, Second, and Third priorities. These categories are defined on the basis of the urgency of the situation. Species in the Highest Priority category face immediate extirpation of their entire California population or their California breeding population if current trends continue. In several cases, extirpation as breeding species has already occurred. Species in the Second Priority category are definitely on the decline in a large portion of their range in California, but their populations are still sufficiently substantial that danger is not immediate. Species in the Third Priority category are not in any present danger of extirpation and their populations within most of their range do not appear to be declining seriously; however, simply by virtue of their small populations in California, they are vulnerable to extirpation should a threat materialize." [Recreation, be it hiking, climbing, mountain-bike riding, or horse-back riding is not a "materialized" threat.]

2) Important to note is that the California Gull http://www.dfg.ca.gov/hcpb/cgi-bin/more_info.asp?idKey=ssc_tespp&specy=birds&query=Larus%20californicus as well as the Black Swift (cliff swallow), and Coopers Hawk, among others, receives the same status on this list (third priority) as the Prairie Falcon and Golden Eagle because, "Species in the Third Priority category are not in any present danger of extirpation".

3) Also key is that though the Department Of Fish And Game does have a list they refer to as "Bird Species of Special Concern" (again, a management tool which provides "no special legal status" to any species on the list), it is VERY IMPORTANT TO NOTE that this same State Agency does not list the Golden Eagle or Prairie Falcon as either threatened or endangered. This determination is only given to those species which the Department Of Fish And Game feels "should have" legal status: http://www.dfg.ca.gov/whdab/pdfs/TEAnimals.pdf

4) Simply put, The USDA's Cleveland National Forest is inappropriately utilizing the DOI's Department Of Fish And Game management tool of Bird Species of Special Concern to enact sanctioned regulatory closures under the guise of needed protections for bird species that do not need protections . . . period.

5) Lastly, should the Forest Service go down this road, I feel they will be on very rocky ground not only for misinterpreting their authority to use the MBTA for recreational restrictions when it is clearly an act that applies to commerce http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/html/uscode16/usc_sup_01_16_10_7_20_II.html, but also due to their miss-use of the Bird Species of Special Concern list. Also, though not previously mentioned, if one "objectively" researches the Species Of Special Concern list, one will easily conclude that it is not scientifically well-founded and has numerous significant flaws. One very telling example of just such a flaw is the fact that though it lists the seagull, swift, falcon, etc., it DOES NOT INCLUDE the Peregrine Falcon species which is in far more peril, and actually was at one time listed on the "Endangered Species List", only recently becoming de-listed.

Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act: http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/html/uscode16/usc_sup_01_16_10_5A_20_II.html

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 darkside
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 2007-04-03
I'm not familiar with the area this article relates to nor the issue however I see the potential for government bureaucrats to overstep their authority in other areas. This is a well crafted article with many links and citations to back up the arguments and assertions of the author. I would be upset if this happened to an area near me but I would be more concerned at the bad science the land managers seem to be using. Having worked in climbing access for some years now, I have noticed a trend to imposed regulations based on either bad science or even lack of data. While I cannot fault land managers for acting on their mandate to protect resources, I do take exception to them being closed minded when correct, verifiable, legitimate data is presented in an effort to review regulations.
As a climber, I want to see the areas I visit to be protected for future use. As a climber I value the link I have with the environment. That is why when I look down from some lofty belay ledge, I get a kick out of seeing some regal raptor soaring below me. In return for that honour, I accept the regulations that would have me climb elsewhere along a crag while birds are nesting. I would also hope that such regulations are based on good science.
A final note I found interesting - the concept of making noise approaching a nest area being less of a disturbance than trying to be quiet and not disturb nesting birds, then scaring the parent bird to sudden flight by making unexpected noise closer to the nest. It would seem my hexes really can be more useful than my cams. ;-)

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