Off-roaders, government officials push for vehicle access to Cleveland National Forest – San Bernardino Sun

Since moving to the Inland Empire in 1992, one of Aaron Sappenfield’s weekly routines — three times a week, actually — was pulling his dirt bike from the garage and taking to the trails of the Cleveland National Forest.

A view from the summit of Santiago Peak. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Sappenfield).

Navigating the winding dirt roads of the Santa Ana Mountains adjacent Temescal Valley on his Honda CNF 250L, Sappenfield’s ritual included stops at the summits of Santiago and Modjeska peaks to take in the panoramic views.

“Trips to Santiago Peak are the best! Amazing views!” Sappenfield said.

Access denied

But those rituals have drastically declined in recent years, mainly because motorized access to the popular off-roading area from Riverside County is blocked, either by road closures imposed by the Forest Service or gates erected by private property owners.

The Holy fire in 2018 prompted the Forest Service to shut down Indian Truck Trail in Temescal Valley due to safety concerns. That diverted traffic onto Bedford Motorway, another access route, prompting a private property owner to erect a gate there last year to further restrict access.

And in the past 20 years, two other popular roads to access the forest and off-roading area from Riverside County — Skyline Drive and Eagle Road — were closed after private property owners put up gates. Skyline Drive closed in 2013 and Eagle Road in the early 2000s, according to the Forest Service.

Reopening the forest

In response to the closures, Sappenfield, an assistant professor of geology at Riverside City College, has partnered with Amy Granat, managing director of the California Off-Road Vehicle Association, in a push to get the Forest Service to either reopen the roads or build new ones. They are forming a grassroots organization to promote their campaign, and encourage those who want to get involved to contact them.

“Forests are multiple-use lands, but if you can’t access a forest, you can’t have multiple use,” Granat said in an interview.

Sappenfield and Granat already have found supporters in Riverside County Supervisor Kevin Jeffries, whose district includes the Temescal Valley, and U.S. Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona. The two met with Forest Service officials in November to discuss a strategy to reopen roads and trails to the public.

“I continue to work with Cleveland National Forest to maintain and enhance public access and reverse closures as quickly as possible, whether those closures are due to wildfire damage and risk or other access restrictions,” Calvert said in a statement.

Jeffries said the county has gone to bat for Sappenfield and Granat, but its hands are tied.

“We’ve already jumped in on behalf of the county and on behalf of the residents who want access to public lands; however, we do not have jurisdiction to resolve this. It primarily rests with the Forest Service and the property owners,” he said.

Jeffries said the Forest Service was tasked in November with researching the matter and developing a strategy to reopen the roads and trails, or at least some of them. He said he has yet to hear back from the Forest Service.

Forest Service spokesman Nathan Judy said in an email that the meeting in November centered mainly on the closure of Bradford Motorway and how to regain access to it.

“We agreed to meet again with the county and the private landowner to continue discussions and work on solution ideas,” Judy said. “We’ve continued a working relationship with the property owner, and we’ve engaged with OHV community members on opportunities.”

In his statement, Calvert said, “I will hold the Forest Service accountable when the agency fails to manage our forests and takes the easy way out at the expense of the taxpayers who pay for the right to recreate on our public lands.”

A slim budget has been an issue for the Forest Service. Judy said his office received word Thursday, March 17, that it was in line for $380,000 in federal disaster relief funding for cleanup efforts involving the Holy fire, and also eligible for $650,000 for trail work.

“These funds will be used in part for repair work on the Indian Truck Trail and trails in Trabuco Canyon,” Judy said in an email. He said the Forest Service is wrapping up its investigation of the 600-acre Jim fire earlier this month, and more details on that should be coming soon.

Indian Truck Trail

Sappenfield and Granat met via Zoom on Tuesday, March 15, with Forest Service officials, including Forest Supervisor Scott Tangenberg and Darrell Vance, district ranger for the Trabuco Ranger District. They discussed, among other things, the feasibility of getting Indian Truck Trail reopened.

Public safety has been the No. 1 concern with the Forest Service, as both the Holy fire and recent Jim fire left the forest prone to falling trees and erosion. Sappenfield agreed to lend his geologic expertise to survey the land.

“This is the low-hanging fruit,” Sappenfield during a recent visit to the Indian Truck Trail trailhead in Temescal Valley. “This is simply a maintenance issue.” He said forest officials put the price tag to repair and reopen the trail at $1 million to $3 million.

Sappenfield said a field trip to the area with Forest Service officials is in the planning stages.

Private property rights

Everyone on all sides of the issue seems to acknowledge that a major problem was the government’s failure to obtain easement rights when its lands near the forest were parceled out and sold to private buyers.

“We need housing in California, but they’re really building into the boundaries of almost all the forests that are near urban areas. The access issues are longstanding and need a permanent solution,” Granat said.

Sappenfield said the road closures are largely due to property disputes over very small portions of roadway, particularly along the eastern margin of the northern Santa Ana Mountains from Lake Elsinore through Tesmecal Valley and Corona.

Jeff Greene, who is Jeffries’ chief of staff and has done much of the legwork on the road closure issue and coordinated talks with Calvert and the Forest Service, said many of the roads being shut down now were used by the public for nearly a century.

“Bedford (Motorway) had been used since the 1930s to access the forest,” Greene said. “It’s very frustrating. This is a road that had been opened for many decades, and then to have it closed at the whim of a single property owner is frustrating. If there’s a way to improve the path there, it’s something we’re willing to look into.”

Darrell Vance, a ranger for the Trabuco Ranger District, said a lot of the private lands surrounding the forest were historically large tracts of agricultural lands that in recent history were subdivided, and the Forest Service has not always had a seat at the table in the process.

“Several times we found out a little late that access off of federal lands had been precluded. In a few recent instances, however, we have had an opportunity to comment on subdivisions through the planning process, and strongly urge to maintain public access to the forest,” Vance said.

“Our goal is ultimately to secure public access, but to do so with a willing partner,” he said. “We’d prefer to have amicable relationships with neighbors.”

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