“We need to protect human life, property and critical natural resources,” San Jacinto District Ranger Arturo Delgado said, explaining the closure of nearly 16,000
acres for the next 12 months. According to Delgado, the area of National Forest Service lands the closure affects is less than 7 percent of NFS lands comprising the San Jacinto Ranger District (not including the National Monument), and about 2 percent of lands the San Bernardino National Forest administers.
In July, the Mountain Fire burned nearly 27,500 acres, resulting in significant trail damage from Garner Valley north to Saddle Junction. Immediately after the fire was contained, the U.S. Forest Service had a Burned Area Emergency Response team assess the area.
They observed not only impassable trail conditions but dangers such as burned trees and branches, and boulders along the trail.
“We’ve seen loose debris and boulders above portions of the trail, and expect more flooding and debris this winter,” Delgado said. “Over the next year, we need to mitigate these hazards.”
Over the next year, Delgado plans to have staff and experts, such as trail technicians, conduct more detailed studies in the closed area before repair and rehabilitation begins later in the winter and spring of 2014.
“We’ll need a thorough assessment of the hazards along the trails,” he said.
While some emergency funds are available to the district as a result of the BAER, the current evaluation will be used to develop an interim funding request for the repair and reconstruction work that will be needed.
Between Cedar Springs in Garner Valley and Tahquitz Valley near Saddle Juncrtion, the Pacific Crest Trail will be closed. Signs directing trail hikers off of it will be posted at Cedar Springs (Morris Ranch Road) and the Saddle. The PCT is open from Saddle Junction north.
“After the rainstorms immediately following the fire, sections of the trail are not discernable,” said Andy Smith, the district’s natural resource. “We’ll have to rebuild the trail. In some areas, new retaining walls may be needed.”
Based on the trail damage and its location, Smith said it maybe be necessary to re-route the trail to a ridgeline.
“We’ll do the best we can as fast was we can,” emphasized Delgado.
Besides the spring migration of hikers north on the PCT, the closures in May Valley may jeopardize the 2014 Spring Challenge, Idyllwild’s annual bike race. “Three-quarters of the course is gone,” Smith said.
Delgado stressed that while parts of the May Valley trails are closed, some are still open outside the burned area. “We’re not putting the May Valley trail program on hold. We’re going to put the environmental assessment in place so we can move forward.”
Patrick Kell, Southwest regional director of the International Mountain Bicycling Association, said with regard to the May Valley Trails Project, “The fire was unfortunate and the limitations on trail access post-fire are unfortunate, too, but understandable from both a public safety and resource management perspective. We’re looking forward to doing some planning there with the USFS and Idyllwild Cycling (our local chapter) in 2014.”
The Closure Order will also give the habitat time to begin recovering, said Kerry Johnston, who Delgado asked to head the BAER team. Especially important is the habitat for two endangered species — the mountain yellow-legged frog and the Quino checkerspot butterfly.
The frog’s habitat is in the northern part of the closed area and the butterfly’s habitat is in the southern portion.
Invasive vegetation is another concern when spring approaches, Johnston said. “The butterfly has a specific annual native host plant which it needs. We’ll need to keep invasive plant form entering the area. It’s really important in year one, that any new species be treated right away before the become established.”
The team, composed of trained botanists, will survey the watershed and focus on the endangered species target areas, she added. The survey and treatment will be very labor-intensive work.
Preventing “type conversion”, as invasive or non-native plants become established in new habitat and push out native vegetation is high priority for Delgado. “The Closure order gives native plants time to re-establish.”
While there is no specific timetable, some portions of the 2009 Station Fire in the Angeles National Forest are still closed, he added.
Jay Pentrack contributed to this story.