Monday, July 25 , 2016, 6:35 pm | Fair 69º

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Paradise Lost at Red Rock? Longtime Road Closure Limits Recreational Access

Reduced funding, limited staffing and several lawsuits have contributed to a backlog of work for the Los Padres National Forest

Summertime fog, gray gloom at the beach — what’s a family to do? As many Santa Barbara County residents and visitors alike know, that’s when you pack up and head over the hill to enjoy the inland heat and get wet at Red Rock. The only problem is, this hugely popular recreation area along the Santa Ynez River in the Santa Barbara District of the Los Padres National Forest is still closed to vehicular traffic.

Sure, you can get your family there if they are capable of biking, walking or horseback riding the 10-mile round-trip on asphalt to the final destination of Red Rock. But for those groups with young children, elderly and or handicapped members, their access is still denied.

So much for having an Adventure Pass, some say. The road closure of this lower section of the Santa Ynez River Road (Forest Road 5N18.2 as well as the upper Santa Ynez section) has never gone on this long before — now approaching a whole summer season — and recreation enthusiasts have been forced to crowd into the limited parking right before the first crossing and the even more limited parking at the Lower Oso picnic area. From there, the first eastern bridge is locked and it’s a long, hot haul back to Red Rock. Great for those who can make the trek on the road, not so great for the many more who can’t.

Paradise lost? Especially on weekends, traffic and parked vehicles have spilled out along narrow Paradise Road, causing congestion and safety problems not only for the Forest Service, campground users, the campground concessionaire staff as well as nearby local residents, but for the other agencies tasked with traffic enforcement and safety.

“This has created a whole new set of problems and issues, the most that the Forest Service and the county sheriff’s along with Search and Rescue have ever had to deal with,” said Douglas Dodge, district ranger of the Santa Barbara Ranger District/Los Padres National Forest.

And then there are the economic trickle-down effects. If you ask the folks who run the Paradise Store how this summer’s sharply limited access has affected their business, you’ll get a polite earful.

“We were so hopeful that this season was going to be a good summer for us because of the plentiful rains, but our business is definitely down, at least 50 percent during the week, not quite as bad on the weekends,” said Laura Armor, vice president and chief financial officer of the Paradise Store. “And this sure hurts us during these more challenging economic times.”

The people who work for Rocky Mountain Recreation who are permitted by the Forest Service to manage all of the campground and picnic areas also have a similar story to tell. They have been forced to lay off employees and had to cancel all reservations to the popular Upper Oso Campground, which had been solidly booked for every weekend since last December, a significant revenue loss.

Now that Upper Oso is finally open but only on a first come, first serve basis, area manager Celia Hancock noted that “a much higher percentage of people are still very upset and frustrated for not having their usual car access to the Red Rock area, much more so than the very small percent that are happy the road has been closed.”

The big question is why — why has a longtime, heavily used public access road for recreational use been unavailable for so long?

“It’s complicated,” Dodge said. “There have been a number of setbacks for us this year, including high water flows throughout the entire Los Padres Forest that have caused a much larger number of maintenance projects, heavy water flow at the Paradise Road crossing that pushed back the opening of Upper Oso, a lack of staff to deal with these issues due to dwindling budgets, and several lawsuits against us that have pulled away even more staff just to work on those … it’s all added up.”

About the lawsuits that no one wants to talk about. Lots of information is available on the Internet for those willing to untangle the maze of legal-speak. But in a nutshell, the Los Padres National Forest, as well as three other area forests in Southern California — the Cleveland, Angeles and San Bernardino — plus the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service as other co-defendants, were found in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

The groups or plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit included a local group called Los Padres ForestWatch, in addition to the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and the California Native Plant Society.

How does this apply in particular to the Santa Barbara Ranger District (one of five districts in the whole Los Padres National Forest)? It basically means the agency has to respond to this litigation and complete more administrative paperwork, such as detailed Environmental Assessments over a six-month deadline. While government agencies are hardly known for being perfect, they are now further hindered by decreased budgets and severely limited staff. In direct terms for the Los Padres, where each district has already lost one staff biologist during the past few years, the few remaining biologists — only three — are pulled away from their regular work.

“Having to deal with litigation is affecting our ability to work on the ground,” Dodge said.

Where are we now? With water levels at the first crossing finally lower, to regain the usual vehicle access back to Red Rock will require some simple structural bridge work. The first bridge out of the lower Oso area, known as the Lower Oso Bridge, took a heavy hit from high stream flow this year and has been undermined and deemed unsafe for car travel. Until funding is secured and a construction contract is issued, the bridge will remain closed.

Looking ahead to next year, more predicted budget cuts and increased administrative red tape, the Forest Service is slowly seeing its abilities decline to effectively manage watershed resources along with public recreational uses.

“There is no more fat to trim,” Dodge said. “Now it’s more like taking limbs off the body.”

So before you want to take your family back to the Santa Ynez River — the only large river in the county that offers residents and visitors National Forest recreation opportunities such as a family swim, call the Los Prietos Ranger Station to check the status of road conditions. According to the Los Padres website, “Visitors are encouraged to plan ahead and contact the Los Prietos Ranger Station for the latest conditions by calling 805.967.3481.” You can also get updates on its website by clicking here.

Update

Funding was allocated Thursday for the Lower Oso bridge project. While Los Padres is facing a $550,000 budget deficit, all other projects will be priority based, including the need to pay existing salaries. Construction on the bridge will begin as soon as a contract can be awarded, and all work is expected to be completed this fall.

If it matters to you that national forest recreational opportunities are slowly declining in your area, contact your local U.S. House and Senate representatives as well as county supervisors to weigh in on decreased access, lack of funding, budget cuts and increased litigation costs.

Recent Los Padres Forest closures because of lawsuits: Click here for the Ojai Ranger District, and click here for the Santa Barbara District.

— Lori Rafferty is a contributing freelance photojournalist with a zoology and environmental studies background (1982 UCSB) who enjoys all aspects of recreation in local forests. She has been documenting forest regrowth since the Zaca Fire of 2007.

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