By Tommy Hough
Since co-founding San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action in 2014, I've spent a great deal of time writing, giving presentations, and making comments on conservation, in part to break the cycle of sprawl development in our backcountry.
I did much the same during the run of Treehuggers International on FM 94/9, and produced shows like the one posted here to give listeners pause about the impact of the never-ending cycle of suburban sprawl around San Diego County, mostly to build expensive housing unaffordable to most working San Diegans, far from jobs and transit.
Of course, I've been applying my conservation ethic and environmental advocacy for nearly 20 years, going back to a series of pieces I wrote for the Seattle Times detailing the need for comprehensive firefighting strategies and questioning the need to aggressively fight wildfires, or engage in prescribed burns and habitat destruction in the name of fire suppression in the hinterlands, miles from communities or private property. While managing communications at Oregon Wild I similarly had a front row seat for many of these conflicts between development, wildfire risk, and "defensible space."
I try not to carry a one-size fits all or myopic mindset with me, and I realize each proposal has its individual attributes. But since my arrival in Southern California I've come to value the unblemished open space of chaparral communities and ecosystems that make San Diego County so special and ecologically diverse, contrasted with the overdevelopment, sprawl, and denuded landscapes just to the north of us in Riverside County.
If you were to have taken a drive north on I-215 to Menifee at the time this show was recorded in 2008, and then turned east to go towards Hemet through Diamond Valley, perhaps via Domenigoni Parkway, you would've found a largely empty grassland, but still a functional wildlife corridor amid encroaching suburbia. Today, that encroachment has arrived, and the valley has come to typify the differences between our two counties toward development.
Now, road signs in Murietta, Menifee, Perris, and Diamond Valley aren't placed by municipalities or governments, but by housing speculators and developers. Rows of flags guide you to perfectly-graded, valley-wide expanses of earth like the wide shot of Marty McFly's Hill Valley neighborhood in 1955, with newly-poured concrete slabs quietly waiting for water and gas hookups. Despite what some of the giant billboards may advertise, these aren't affordable housing developments. They never will be.
While northern San Diego County is particularly rugged and hilly and perhaps not as suitable for development as the flatter valleys of Riverside County north of Temecula and Lake Elsinore at the base of the San Jacinto range, the blankets of chaparral that give Southern California its cooling backcountry green as its largest native ecosystem remains naturally contiguous throughout. To say it is misunderstood and frequently maligned would be an understatement.
Which brings me to this show. This episode of Treehuggers International features my friend Rick Halsey, the founder and director of the California Chaparral Institute, who was a frequent guest on the show and, at the time, a member of the San Diego Regional Fire Safety Forum formed in the wake of the 2003 Cedar Fire and 2007 Witch Creek Fire.
This particular episode is from Rick's second appearance on the show, recorded Oct. 2, 2008, and broadcast a few days later on Sunday, Oct. 5. While I never posted this episode on this particular page, I thought it was worth sharing now, 12 years later, because we're still talking about so many of the same issues, threats, and dumb behavior when it comes to our attitudes about wildfire in relation to the state's largest natural ecosystem. So much of this conversation remains so relevant it could've been recorded last week.
Rick and I were initially planning to talk about then-Supervisor Bill Horn's penchant for "fuel clearance," and the wanton destruction of perfectly healthy natural habitat in our backcountry, but the conversation also veered toward the impact of recent wildfires on old-growth chaparral stands in San Diego and along the Central Coast, how to make communities safer from wildfire, the future of Rancho Guejito, the use of goats in fuel clearance projects, and some bad behavior on the part of the U.S. Forest Service and a brush-crushing masticator (!) that devastated a virgin stand of chaparral in the Santa Ana Mountains.
Tom Petty once said, "People may be slow, but they ain't deaf." I hope that's true. I hope if policymakers and the public hear Rick Halsey enough times they'll start to get the cotton out of their ears and think about their positions on conservation, on sprawl at any cost, and think through the long-term effects of "managing" the natural environment that nature already manages for us.
Thanks as always to Rick for being my guest in 2008, and for continuing to speak on these same critical matters a dozen years later.
Santa Ana Mountains and Hauser Wilderness photos by Tommy Hough
Chaparral masticator photo by Jeff Kuyper
A former San Diego broadcaster and media personality, Tommy Hough is a wilderness and conservation advocate, communications professional, California Democratic Party delegate, and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action.