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Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Whoops! County Accidentally Destroys San Jacinto River Habitat

Tuesday, September 4, 2007
The Riverside Press-Enterprise

SAN JACINTO - Environmentalists say they are worried about destruction of wildlife habitat at the long-vacant San Jacinto River Park on State Street.

The concerns follow recent allegations by several environmental groups that Riverside County and San Jacinto city officials are circumventing California Environmental Quality Act requirements to accommodate the city's proposed levee project along the San Jacinto River.

City and county officials deny the allegation.

Officials said the cleanup work was necessary to reduce potential fire hazards from deadwood and dry brush that had accumulated on the property.

"There were no trees cut down," said Sam Goepp, general manager of Valley-Wide Recreation and Park District, which recently acquired the park from Riverside County. "We only removed overgrown branches and deadwood. If you had gone out there earlier, you'd see all these widow-makers (loose branches) ready to fall."

Goepp said he did not check first for possible environmental restrictions on such work.

"I just know we had a hazardous condition we needed to clean up," he said. "It was like a weed-abatement project. We just wanted to get it cleaned up. Then we're going to have community meetings with regard to what we're going to do with it."

Goepp said a comprehensive environmental review will be done before any development occurs.

Paul Frandsen, general manager of the Riverside County Regional Park & Open-Space District, which controlled the property until June, said the county has periodically cleared the area at the request of Cal Fire.

Work Challenged

"The explanation that it was for fire clearing doesn't hold," said Hemet resident Anthony Mann. "They actually did pruning as well with high branches."

Mann, who described himself as a wildlife biologist and environmentally concerned resident, said dense riparian areas were cut despite evidence of raptor nests in the trees. Non-native grassland also was mowed and cleared of woody brush and tree limbs.

The site contains habitat suitable for the San Bernardino kangaroo rat, Los Angeles pocket mouse, burrowing owl and other sensitive grassland species, Mann said.

"In addition, Valley-Wide was cutting during bird maternity season, which can violate the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act," he said. "There are nests where they were cutting."

Although the property falls within the Western Riverside County Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan area, county officials said the land transfer did not require a full environmental review. San Jacinto is one of numerous agencies that signed the agreement, which is intended to protect wildlife habitat.

"Doing the clearing was jumping the gun. It needed to go through environmental review under the California Environment Quality Act," Mann said. "I don't think the change of land use to a developed park facility qualifies for CEQA exemption."

The county's Frandsen disagreed, saying the land use has not changed from when the county owned it.

Pursuing Input

Beyond the immediate habitat concerns, Mann said he is worried about Valley-Wide developing the park into a high-density recreation and sports facility with baseball diamonds, grass and other sports amenities.

Goepp said nothing will be built there until Valley-Wide hears from the community. The recreation-and-park district expects to host public meetings at the site in about two months.

San Jacinto River Park was closed more than a decade ago because of county budget reductions and has pretty much returned to its natural state. The Riverside County Board of Supervisors recently gave it to San Jacinto-based Valley-Wide. At the same time, the city of San Jacinto is trying to annex the park.

Mann said the county had been doing some bird trapping in the park and portions had been marked as a wildlife area.

"The only reason someone would be concerned about putting ... traps in areas is because there are least Bell's vireo or Southwestern willow flycatcher in the same region," he said. "They're trying to protect those sensitive species by removing parasitic birds."

An informal wildlife survey was conducted in April, but no sensitive species was found.


Shauli Rosen-Rager, a member of the San Gorgonio Chapter of the Sierra Club and the San Jacinto Valley Conservation Committee, said the valley is changing to the detriment of local wildlife.

"My concern is that if we don't start paying attention to the few open spaces that are in the public domain, like this public park, then before we know it we're going to end up with a continuous valley of concrete, asphalt or grass with very little diversity and very little opportunity to spend time in nature in an accessible way," Rosen-Rager said. "If we turn that little gem into baseball fields, then it's something we'll lose forever."

Mann said the California Department of Fish and Game is evaluating the situation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also has been notified.

Two weeks ago, a coalition of environmental groups asked for an investigation into what they say was illegal destruction of as much as five miles of endangered-species habitat along the San Jacinto River.

Steve Stump, chief engineer for the Riverside County Flood Control District, acknowledged that nesting habitat was destroyed in February during cleanup work along the river. The work included removal of riparian willow-cottonwood habitat between Bridge and State streets in unincorporated county area.

Stump said the problem stemmed from miscommunication between the district's operations division and the private contractor hired to do the work. The cleanup was ordered in the wake of the 2005 winter storms that resulted in flooding and damage to nearby agricultural property, he said.

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