This Land Was Your Land: East County Suffers Loss Of Our Public Properties

2007 SDG&E wildfireWhat are the cumulative impacts on our region from the loss of federal, state and county public lands? In the span of just a few short years, we’ve lost vast tracts of our most beautiful properties once set aside by the federal, state and county governments as preserves for future generations. Wildfires, budget cuts, and now, massive energy projects are destroying our region’s scenic wonders.

In 2012, East County Magazine sent photographers into the wilds of San Diego’s East County, as well as just over the border into neighboring Imperial County, to document the destruction of our inland treasures.

Wildfires’ tragic cost

99% burned: Rancho Cuyamaca State Park (photo: CA Parks Service)

99% burned: Rancho Cuyamaca State Park (photo: CA Parks Service)

The once verdant pines of Cuyamaca will not grow back in our lifetime, and with changing climate conditions, experts say this lost “ghost forest” may never return.

The fires also took a terrible toll on wildlife. Deer and mountain lions were found burned; habitat and foraging grounds were decimated for countless wild animals and birds.

“We have been devastated,” said State Park Director Ruth Coleman in a news release after the 2003 fires. “The reports coming into my office are very disheartening. We have lost priceless cultural and historic structures. We have lost offices and other operations facilities. We have lost tens of thousands of acres of pristine wilderness and forests. Our people have suffered heavy personal losses by losing their homes. Our parks’ family is feeling a good deal of pain today.”

Fires--photos from LM 074_edited

Deer, burned in Cedar Fire; photo by La Mesa Fire

But sadly, more devastation followed. In 2007, the devastating Witch Fire, Poomacha, and Harris  Fires forced a half million San Diego County residents to flee their homes. Among other devastating losses, the fire scorched 65% percent of Palomar State Park (1,250 acres). Portions of the Hauser National Wilderness area also burned.

Federal lands opened to energy projects

One might think that after such heart-wrenching destruction of public lands and habitat, special care would be taken to protect our remaining parks and recreation areas. But sadly, that has not occurred.

During the Bush administration, secret meetings between energy company executives and Vice President Dick Cheney resulted in the unprecedented opening up of publicly held lands for construction of massive energy projects in what formally became known as “Energy Corridor.

wind-turbines-blueThis environmentally destructive policy was embraced by the Obama administration in its quest for renewable energy projects to “reduce” greenhouse gas emissions and lessen dependence on foreign oil.

The fruits of seeds sown in those closed-door energy sessions are being reaped today by SDG&E and the manufacturers of massive wind turbines, solar farms and high-voltage power lines built, underway or planned across lands formerly reserved as national forests, wilderness or public recreation lands.

Inside the Energy Corridors

Sunrise Powerlink has been called “the most devastating project I’ve ever seen”  by San Diego Supervisor Dianne Jacob. The 117-mile-long high-voltage power lines slice through Cleveland National Forest.

Massive steel towers penetrate the heart of a county-designated scenic view corridor in Lakeside’s El Monte Valley, where towers now march across the face of El Cajon Mountain, known to locals as El Capitan for its resemblance to El Monte Valley.

Lakes and reservoirs have been invaded by the Powerlink, too.

Powerlink tower in El Monte Valley, a "protected" county scenic view corridor

Powerlink tower in El Monte Valley, a “protected” county scenic view corridor

Massive steel towers penetrate the heart of a county-designated scenic view corridor in Lakeside’s El Monte Valley, where towers now march across the face of El Cajon Mountain, known to locals as El Capitan for its resemblance to El Monte Valley.

Lakes and reservoirs have been invaded by the Powerlink, too.

Power lines continue their destructive march eastward through scenic areas Alpine, portions of Cleveland National Forest.

Power companies are even sawing the tops of mountains in some areas.

From there, the line runs onward through the McCain Valley federal recreation area on Bureau of Land Management property through rocky precipices in prime eagle habitat.

Fly yard in El Monte Valley; photo by Milt Cyphert

Fly yard in El Monte Valley; photo by Milt Cyphert

Landmark rock formations that once seemed towering in scale now seem miniaturized as views have been obliterated by the power towers.

This is prime habitat for the Peninsular bighorn sheep, a threatened species set to also have its habitat diminished by a 10-mile-long solar farm proposed on public land in nearby Ocotillo.  It is also a haven for nesting golden eagles, hawks, owls and other raptors, as well as cougars, deer and other wildlife.  But now the roar of helicopters working seven days a week is disrupting the valley, along with dozens of construction trucks and lands scraped bare as staging areas, or fly yards, for the towers.

Jacumba, near Desert View Tower; photo by Miriam Raftery

Jacumba, near Desert View Tower; photo by Miriam Raftery

Beyond, the towers despoil views of high desert mountains and even a panoramic vista from the Desert View Tower in Jacumba, long a popular stop for visitors traveling from Arizona to San Diego.

These views have awed travelers for centuries, from Native Americans to Spanish colonists, from pioneers and stagecoach travelers to motorists along the interstate highway here.

Federal recreation area at Ocotillo, viewed from Desert Tower, slated for a wind farm.

Native American tribes have filed suit to halt energy projects in Ocotillo, where rare cultural artifacts would be lost.

Towers dominate the desert landscape through Imperial County to Arizona.

High voltage lines now even occupy the once desolate dunes near El Centro, where off-road racing and dune buggy enthusiasts must now dodge towers that dwarf dunes of shifting sands that formerly looked like a scene out of the deserts of Arabia.

Dune buggy dodges tower amid dunes at state recreation area near El Centro

Dune buggy dodges tower amid dunes at state recreation area near El Centro

Paradise Lost—Coming Soon

There’s much more yet to come.

Even the new Powerlink towers in scenic McCain Valley will soon seem Lilliputian beside far taller wind turbines.

Tower dwarfs car in McCain Valley; turbines will be even taller

Tower dwarfs car in McCain Valley; turbines will be even taller

Tule Wind Farm, just approved by the U.S. Department of the Interior, will line the only road through McCain Valley–and the only entrance to the spectacular Carrizo Gorge and Sawtooth Wilderness regions—with 124 wind turbines.

Each will be over 450 feet tall—45 stories (a third the height of the World Trade Centers’ twin towers lost in the 911 attacks) with blade spans larger than those on many commercial jet liners.

The whirling turbines will surround Cottonwood and Lark Campgrounds.

The Jacumba-Boulevard area is also slated for two proposed solar farms. Though not on public lands, these would total over 1,000 acres (larger than Balboa Park) and involved scraping the earth bare of habitat in an area already severely impacted by Powerlink, Tule Wind, and next up, the ECO power substation planned by SDG&E.

Park Closures

Cedar Creek Falls, closed since July 2011 by the US Forest Service; photo by Elena Pena

Cedar Creek Falls, closed since July 2011 by the US Forest Service; photo by Elena Pena

As if all of these losses of public lands are not enough, state and federal park officials and our State Legislature have recently barred access to some of East County’s most cherished destinations—and two state parks in San Diego County face permanent closure come July.

Cedar Creek Falls, which lies within the Cleveland National Forest, has long been a favorite spot for backcountry hikers. Many visitors are shocked to learn of our best kept secret—a towering 200-foot-high waterfall plunging into a swimming hole that looks like a scene straight out of Shangri-La.

Following trail improvements and a teen’s tragic death, the Forest Service had shut down access to the falls. There have been several deaths and serious injuries through the years, as occurs occasionally at waterfalls in other wilderness locations, from Yosemite to Yellowstone. Signage at those locations clearly warn of dangers, but the park service doesn’t shut down access to the many eager visitors due to a few daredevils or people who fail to follow clearly posted directions.

Compounding the loss, state budget cuts have led to reduced staffing at many state parks, with many seasonal closures. Some make sense in lean times, such as shuttering Anza Borrego Desert State Park in the heat of mid-summer, for example. Cuyamaca-GreenValleyFalls-s_0

The most baffling closure is that of the Green Valley Falls in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. This has been a favorite lure of young and old alike for generations in East County, with a trail easily accessible for most. The State Park Service kept it shut down during three seasons. [A sign at the entrance says it has since reopen]. But who wants to visit a waterfall during the dry season? Are our days of splashing in crystal green pools at the base of a thunderous cascade of water gone forever?

At least these places have been protected as publicly owned parks, and some may reopen intact. The same cannot be said, however, for 70 state parks slated for permanent closure July 1 due to budget cuts—including Palomar Mountain State Park and the San Pasqual Battlefield State Park in San Diego’s inland areas.

Palomar Mt. State Park

Palomar Mt. State Park

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Lake at Palomar Mt. State Park attracts hikers year-round

Reenacting a Mexican-American War battle at San Pasqual

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Cannon at San Pasqual Battlefield State Park

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Reenacting a Mexican-American War battle at San Pasqual

These are scenic wonderlands and places where the echoes of our past reside, a rich history that includes Native American cultural resources, pioneer heritage, and the landmark battle that turned the tide of the Mexican-American War.

 

 

At San Pasqual, re-enactors have annually brought to life the famous battle; will that cease when the visitor center goes dark? Worse, these parks could be sold off to private buyers, padlocked or paved over– the memories of those hard-fought battles and frontier spirits confined to the ashbin of history.

A Call to Action

East County Magazine calls on our elected representatives and public officials at the federal, state and local levels to take a hard look at the cumulative impacts of that our region has suffered from fires, budget cuts, and energy projects.  It’s time to halt the most destructive projects not yet built–and implement some moratoriums on robbing San Diego’s inland region of any more of our public lands.

El Capitan Mountain

A view gone forever: shot from atop El Capitan Mountain in the El Monte Valley; photo by Billy Ortiz

Just as many citizens speak out to prevent the looting of our public treasury, so, too, should we raise our voices to halt the decimation of our natural and historic treasures on our public lands.

 

 

 

Resources:

Cleveland National Forest | East County Magazine

Notification of a Public Meeting – SDG&E Power Line Replacement Projects: Environmental Impact on the Cleveland National Forest

Sunrise Powerlink and Industrial Wind Energy

Sunrise Powerlink | San Diego Gas & Electric

Switching on SDG&E’s Sunrise Powerlink | UTSanDiego.com

Sunrise Powerlink Fire Mitigation Grant Program

Obama admin retools sprawling Western ‘energy corridor

West-wide Energy Corridors: A new way forward

CPPF Purpose – Coe Park Preservation Fund

Long-term prognosis for Calif. state parks murky – San Diego

 

Green Groups Attack Bush-Era Energy Corridor Plan – Law360

Tule Wind | East County Magazine

Calif. wildfire threatens 2,3000 buildingsNBC News

 

 

 

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