The Cleveland National Forest / Image via Shutterstock

San Diego County residents took bold action to protect the Cleveland National Forest back in 1993. That November, Proposition C – better known as the Forest Conservation Initiative – passed handily, with support from all around the county and across the political spectrum. It was endorsed by elected officials who represented our region at the local, state and federal levels, all of whom recognized that San Diego County’s only national forest provides countless benefits to our region.

The Forest Conservation Initiative maintained large lot sizes for private property within the Cleveland National Forest. Country towns like Julian and Alpine that abut the forest and Descanso and Pine Valley within the forest maintained higher density zoning under the measure. It was only areas outside country town boundaries that were zoned with a forest designation with lot sizes of 40 acres or more.

The Forest Conservation Initiative was San Diego County’s way of signaling to developers that the Cleveland National Forest was off limits. And, for a time, it was one of San Diego County’s most significant planning success stories. It prevented piecemeal development, which disrupts natural areas and wildlife corridors, harming native plants and wildlife in the process. By all accounts, the Forest Conservation Initiative accomplished what it set out to do.

Its protections remained in effect until 2011. Unfortunately, after it was not renewed, the Board of Supervisors adopted new zoning for San Diego County’s forestlands, making it easier to intensify development within the forest.

It’s no secret that San Diego County’s General Plan is far from ironclad. The contentious fight over Measure A that will go before voters in March is proof that San Diegans understand how easy it is to change the General Plan in order to build up oversized housing developments in our backcountry.

Luckily, it’s not too late for our county officials to increase protections for our precious forestlands. The “Forest Indicator” ordinance will soon be heard by the San Diego County Planning Commission, and then by the Board of Supervisors. This ordinance would protect sensitive forest lands by restricting development outside country town boundaries within the forest. And these protections would hold whether or not voters approve Measure A on Election Day.

Under the Forest Indicator ordinance, developments would need to comply with existing zoning unless they can demonstrate they have adequate water supply, are carbon-neutral and do not exacerbate fire risk. Sierra Club and Cleveland National Forest Foundation proposed these specific protections as part of legal settlement agreements with the county over its plans to weaken the voter-approved protections provided by the Forest Conservation Initiative.

San Diego County voters knew in 1993, as they know now, that forests provide unparalleled benefits to our communities. In addition to natural areas that are home to mountain lions, deer and eagles, these forestlands supply a significant percentage of San Diego’s fresh water. The Cleveland National Forest also gives urban residents a local place to connect with the natural world.

In the decades since the Forest Conservation Initiative passed, climate change has moved from a theoretical threat to an everyday concern. The public understands now more than ever that protecting natural areas is critical to our own well-being and survival. We must insist that some areas, like the Cleveland National Forest, remain safe from haphazard development.

It’s time for our Board of Supervisors to demonstrate it understands the priorities of San Diego County residents. If two-thirds of voters supported the Forest Conservation Initiative way back in 1993 – before 2003’s Cedar Fire and the Witch and Harris fires of 2007, and well before the apocalyptic fire that destroyed Paradise in 2018 – what percentage of voters would approve it today?

The proposed Forest Indicator ordinance safeguards the Forest Conservation Initiative’s protections and extends its legacy. This ordinance acknowledges that every property outside of country town boundaries but inside forest boundaries is part of a greater ecological whole. In the age of climate change, resource scarcity and fire danger, forest protection is more important than ever.

It’s time for the county to protect the Cleveland National Forest from a death by a thousand cuts. Let’s make sure the forest won’t be broken into hobby farms and ranchettes dotted with McMansions. By adopting the Forest Indicator ordinance, our elected officials will restore essential protections to the forest – protections that ultimately benefit us all.

Duncan McFetridge, a founder of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation, drafted and promoted the Forest Conservation Initiative. Pam Slater-Price represented District 3 on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors from 1992-2013.

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