Cleveland National Forest

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Until the arrival in San Diego of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the lands now within the Cleveland National Forest were known only to the desert and coastal Indian tribes who used them. The Kumeyaay, Luisenos, Cahuilla and Cupeno found a good living on the abundant acorns and game. Many of our trails today follow those routes first used by these early dwellers.

However, Cabrillo's arrival in 1542 had little effect on the area. It wasn't until 1769 that the Peninsular Range and its coastal plain attracted much interest. Fearing possible interference by England and possibly Russia, Spain encouraged Junipero Serra to establish his first of 21 California missions. The original site of the first mission is located near the present "Old Town," in San Diego. It was constructed in part by timbers hauled in from what is now Rancho Corte Madera ("wood yard"), on the Descanso District. Further north, timbers from Los Pinos Potrero (Trabuco District) were hauled down toward the coast to build Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Also in that year, the Portola expedition, led by Caspar de Portola, and joined by Juan Crespi, Francisco Gomez, and Pedro Fages, left on its way from San Diego to Monterey, leaving a legacy of many of the place names we know today.

Prior to the establishment of the missions, human impact on the land was relatively insignificant. The explorers Vizcaino and Cabrillo reported that the native Indians did considerable burning of the brushlands along the coast and in the mountains, but the overall impact was probably not very great. However, with the arrival of a ranching culture, the landscape underwent more dramatic changes, subtle at first, as the native grasslands were slowly replaced by European and Asian weeds and other introduced plants. Some botanists argue that this invasion of exotic plants had more affect on the land than any other single factor.

During the 1700's the land had been parceled out in large land grants. One of these, the Rancho San Jose del Valle grant, was given in 1844 to one of the earliest settlers, a fur trader named J. T. Warner. About the same time, Juan Forster received the land grants of Los Pinos Potrero, El Cariso Potrero, and Potrero de la Cienega.

Widespread overgrazing throughout the area, brush and trees cut for fence posts, and fires set to produce forage expanded what the Indians had done in centuries past.

In 1869 gold was discovered near Julian, attracting hordes of miners from the Mother Lode, and swelling the town to a population greater than that of San Diego. Also, during this period, zinc, lead, and silver mines were booming in the western canyons in the Santa Anas (hence, Silverado Canyon). Nearby, in Trabuco Canyon, still stands the remains of the large (and unproductive) tin mine, once owned (about 1900) by Gail Borden of the Eagle Milk Co., who'd hoped to use its yield to produce cans for his milk.

The great influx of miners left its mark on the land. Trees were cut for mine timbers, heat and cooking fuel. And great expanses of brush were burned so miners could penetrate new areas to search for minerals.

As the mines petered out, so did many of the early ranches, which had been overgrazed and had lost their chief labor force as the Indian population died off due to hardship and disease.

The principal end results were growing threats to the watersheds, which by now were of critical importance to southern California communities.

The Cleveland is Created
Early reports from the 1870's-1880's refer to fires that burned uncontrolled for weeks at a time. The lack of protection from fire was causing serious damage to irrigation works and the water supplies of the rural areas, the small metropolitan area of San Diego and other coastal towns of the late 1800's. The need for a forest reserve was evident to the first California Forestry Commission, appointed by Governor Stone in 1886; and it recorded in its findings the necessity for special protection of watershed cover to prevent the occurrence of major fires and subsequent erosion which were "injuring the climate, agriculture and future prospects of southern California."

The widespread support for better resource management found a few opposing voices, among which were timber and ranching interests who viewed the movement as leading to greater restriction on their activities.

Regardless, the Forest Reserve Act was passed in 1891. Although the Act was meant to slow down wasteful and illegal timber cutting, the problem was different in southern California. It was to protect their watersheds that Californians immediately began demanding Forest Reserves.

The Cleveland National Forest became one of the first in the new system and had its basis in the 50,000-acre Trabuco Canon Forest Reserve (in the Santa Ana Mountains), created by President Harrison in February 1893. In February 1897 President Cleveland created San Jacinto Forest Reserve, a 700,000-acre area that included the desert lands southeast of Palomar Mountain. In 1899, the Trabuco Reserve was more than doubled, in response to a petition sent to the General Land Office by residents near Trabuco Canyon.

These early Forest Reserves had been administered by the General Land Office (GLO) in the U.S. Department of Interior. However, the GLO lacked any trained foresters to aggressively take charge. So in 1905 the reserves were transferred to a new Bureau of Forestry (now the U.S. Forest Service) in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 1907 their designation as Forest Reserves was changed to National Forests.

In 1907 President Roosevelt made extensive additions to both the Trabuco Canyon and San Jacinto Forest Reserves, to include Palomar and Laguna Mountains and those farther south to the Mexican Border. A year later (1908) President Roosevelt combined the two "Reserves" to form the new 1,904,826-acre Cleveland National Forest.

During the next 17 years there were several deletions to the Cleveland, a major one in 1915 when 749,730 acres of non-forest value lands were returned to public entry, and another in 1925 when the San Jacinto unit was transferred to the San Bernardino National Forest. Today the Cleveland National Forest consists of approximately 420,000 acres of forest land.

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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