Cleveland National Forest

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Long before today's complex debates about land use, urban sprawl, and biodiversity, public concerns helped set aside public lands for protection and preservation in Southern California. In 1893, the Trabuco Canyon Forest Reserve was created in the Santa Ana Mountains of Orange and Riverside counties, laying the foundation for the future Cleveland National Forest. Shortly afterwards, the petitions of local citizens concerned about watershed overuse and uncontrolled wildfires resulted in more land being added to the reserve. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt combined parts of two Forest Reserves into the Cleveland National Forest, named in honor of President Grover Cleveland. You can learn more about the history of the Cleveland National Forest area by visiting the Forest Service History Center at the Trabuco Ranger District Office, the El Prado Cabin at the Laguna Campground, and Oak Grove Ranger along State Highway 79.

The mountains of the Cleveland are part of a range that extends from Orange County into Baja California. Born 130 to 225 million years ago (Triassic to Jurassic age) with deposits of marine sediment and volcanic rocks, geologic forces formed these deposits into mountains 90 and 105 million years ago. Between 10 and 80 million years ago, erosion sculpted the mountains into the approximate size and shape we see today.

The unique climate, soils, and terrain of the Cleveland combine to produce some of the most unusual collections of plants in California. These plants support wildlife, protect watersheds, and contribute to the magnificent scenery.

More than three-quarters of the Cleveland National Forest is chaparral. Chamise, scrub oak, chaparral, yucca and California buckwheat are widespread throughout the Forest's middle elevations, between 2,000 and 4,000 feet. Mountain mahogany is found in the Santa Ana Mountains and the higher elevations of the Laguna Mountains. In general, chaparral plants are distributed along lines of climatic, geographic, and elevation change. Fire and soil moisture are also important factors in chaparral occurrence and regeneration.

The Forest's lower elevations have frequent wildfires and may contain semi-woody, coastal sage scrub species such as California sagebrush and black sage. Taller woody shrubs, such as mission manzanita, laurel sumac and woolyleaf ceanothus, are often found there as well.

Chaparral found at higher elevations, near the forested areas, is likely to contain Palmer ceanothus or Eastwood manzanita. Coastal-influenced areas often contain hoaryleaf ceanothus mixed with chamise. Drier, more interior locations support red shank. Southeastern parts of the Forest contain abundant cup-leaf or Mojave ceanothus (two varieties of one species).

Chaparral is interesting to watch as the seasons change. Late winter and early spring are often colorful with ceanothus and manzanita flowers. Early blooming allows these plants to set seed before the summer dry season. Toyon, however, is an interesting exception. It flowers in early summer and retains its red fruit for several months.

Coastal sage scrub and lower elevation chaparrals serve as important habitat for the rarely seen California gnatcatcher and cactus wren. The gray vireo is occasionally seen in chaparral habitats. More commonly seen birds in this general area include California and mountain quails, California thrasher, California and rufous-sided towhees, and canyon wren. A large reptile and amphibian population, including the horned toad, the fence lizard, and a variety of harmless (gopher, California kingsnake, rosy boa) and poisonous (red diamondback, speckled and western rattlesnakes) snakes also call the chaparral home. Mammals such as the mountain lion, kangaroo rat, mule deer, gray fox and bobcat also occur in chaparral areas.

Riparian Areas
Riparian or streamside areas are a unique and rare habitat type in the Forest, covering only about one percent of the Forest's land. These areas are home to many threatened, endangered, and sensitive wildlife species, including the least Bell's vireo, the California spotted owl, and the arroyo toad. Deer, quail, mountain lion, and fox also depend on these areas for drinking water. There are two main types of riparian vegetation: willow/cottonwood and coast live oak riparian forest.

Willow/cottonwood riparian forest is found along Pine Creek in the Descanso District and is common along low-elevation streams throughout the Forest. In this habitat, trees and shrubs usually grow densely together, providing homes for songbirds, pond turtles, tree frogs, and native fish.

Coast five oak riparian forest can be found along the Upper San Diego River near Inaja Memorial Picnic Ground, and is also common in Horsethief Canyon south of Descanso. This riparian forest is typically more open, with lots of space underneath the trees. The California spotted owl, house wren, and acorn woodpecker live in the oak riparian forest.

Montane Meadows
Riparian montane meadows are a rare habitat type—grassland openings in the mixed conifer/hardwood forest found above 2,200 feet. Common trees in this forest are Jeffrey pine, Coulter pine, white fir, California incense cedar, and black oak.

Montane meadows are seasonally wet, with the water table fluctuating from one to three feet below the surface. Because the soil is poorly drained, and finer than the coarse, well-drained soils of the adjacent forest, trees do not grow in the meadow areas. Instead, the meadows support plant species that include Cuyamaca meadowfoam, Cuyamaca larkspur, San Bernardino bluegrass, deergrass, and several types of bunchgrass.

Montane meadows are important foraging areas for raptors such as the red-tailed hawk, golden eagle, and American kestrel. The western meadowlark, western bluebird, violet-green swallow and tree swallow also forage extensively in meadow areas. Southern mule deer use meadow areas for foraging and fawning. Badgers, bats, ringtails, mountain lion and other mammals are also found here, along with many reptiles.

Today's meadows are the remnants of a series of meadows that were once extensive in the Laguna and Palomar Mountain areas. The reduction in meadows is the result of changes to the natural hydrologic cycle caused by human activities or natural drought.

Oak Woodland
Oak woodlands cover about 23,000 acres of the Cleveland. Several types of oak woodland are found on the Forest; dominant species include coast live oak, black oak, and Engelmann oak. Oak woodlands are extremely valuable wildlife habitat—acorns are food for woodpeckers, bluejays, squirrels and deer. The trees also provide shelter and nesting areas for nuthatches, owls, swallows, and small animals.

Coast live oak woodlands are found near streams and meadows throughout the Forest. Common throughout San Diego County, these oaks can be identified by their dark green, curled under leaves and long, pointed acorns. Good examples of coast live oak woodland include Love Valley in the Palomar District and Tenaja Meadow in the Trabuco District.

Black oak woodlands are abundant in the Palomar and Laguna Mountains at higher elevations. Black oak is deciduous, and provides a beautiful golden color show in the fall before it loses its leaves for the winter. Its acorns were prized by local Native Americans, who found them to be the best tasting of acorns.

Engelmann oak woodlands occur throughout the Forest. Some of the larger woodlands are found in the Mesa Grande area, on the east side of the Palomar District. Found only in Southern California, Engelmann oaks are easily identified by large, flat, oval leaves that are bluish-green.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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