Canyon in Ventura Backcountry Has Suffered From Years of Trash, Graffiti & Vandalism
Ojai, Calif. – For years, Cherry Creek canyon in the Ventura County backcountry has been littered with a colorful array of shotgun shells, bullet casings, shot-up televisions, furniture, and other trash. It’s the result of unmanaged, unauthorized target shooting that has turned the area into one of the most trashed sites in the Los Padres National Forest.
On October 29, 2011, more than eighty volunteers removed more than 2.5 tons of trash, making it the area’s largest cleanup effort to date and one of the largest trash cleanups ever organized in Los Padres National Forest history. Los Padres ForestWatch organized the cleanup effort in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, Keep the Sespe Wild, and local sponsors Patagonia, E.J. Harrison & Sons, Matilija Pure Water, Ace Hardware of Meiners Oaks, and Lowe’s.
The entire Cherry Creek watershed has been closed to target shooting since July 2011, when a federal judge ordered the Forest Service to close the area. The closure is the result of a lawsuit brought by ForestWatch and other conservation organizations concerned about the trash and toxic heavy metals finding their way into the nearby creekbed, poisoning fish and other wildlife. With the area closed, teams of volunteers spent this fall morning cleaning up the area for good, before winter rains washed it all downstream into Sespe Creek. “The Forest Service did the right thing by closing this dumping ground,” said Suzanne Feldman, Conservation Coordinator for ForestWatch. “Now we can bring the Cherry Creek watershed back to its natural splendor.”
Unlike the three other national forests in southern California, the Los Padres National Forest is generally open to target shooting. Specific isolated areas of the forest have been closed over the years for public safety or environmental reasons, but across the vast majority of the Los Padres, a person can shoot at targets to their heart’s content. The problem arises when shooters leave these areas littered with targets and trash.
Six years ago, the U.S. Forest Service approved a plan to close the entire Los Padres forest to target shooting (with the exception of a handful of carefully-selected sites). The Cherry Creek shooting area was specifically slated for closure, but forest officials never took any further steps to formally close it down, and the area has continued to get trashed ever since.
In 2009, ForestWatch formally requested that the Forest Service take the final steps necessary to permanently close the area to target shooting, including issuing a closure order, posting signs, and increasing law enforcement in the area. The Forest Service refused to do so, citing budget issues, and the trash continued to accumulate.
But in June 2011, a federal judge ordered the Forest Service to increase protections for wildlife habitat in the four southern California national forests. The order was in response to a lawsuit filed by ForestWatch and our conservation partners the Center for Biologica Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife. One of the specific actions that the judge outlined was to close the Cherry Creek canyon to target shooting. In July 2011, the Forest Service issued the official closure order, the final step needed to close the area. The canyon remains open to hiking, camping, and hunting, but is now officially off-limits to any form of target shooting.
Problems With Cherry Creek
Cherry Creek flows through a remote chaparral canyon in the Upper Sespe Creek watershed, passing through scattered groves of alder, canyon oak, and some of the largest big cone Douglas fir trees in the forest, eventually emptying into Sespe Creek alongside Scenic Highway 33. The canyon lies deep in the Los Padres National Forest backcountry between the Matilija Wilderness and the Sespe Wilderness.
The main shooting area is located alongside Sespe Creek, and at least nine smaller shooting areas are found further upstream along Cherry Creek. Each of these sites are littered with mounds of shotgun shells and bullet casings that are leaching toxic lead into the soil and adjacent creekbed. Old televisions, computer monitors, and other household appliances have also been left here as targets, and as they are shot, they release mercury and other heavy metals into the environment. Many boulders in the area have been vandalized with graffiti, and the proximity of the main shooting area to Highway 33 also presents a safety concern to passing motorists.
According to data provided by the U.S. Forest Service, target shooting has caused six recent wildfires in the Cherry Creek area (in 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2008 and 2010). Certain steel-tipped bullets cause sparks when they hit rocks and can ignite nearby brush. At a different site just up the road from Cherry Creek, a stray bullet ignited the 21,645-acre Wolf Fire in 2002.
On a recent visit to the area, ForestWatch also discovered that target shooters are causing damage to several trees in upper Cherry Canyon. Repeated shooting at the trees has splintered the bark and chipped away at the inside of the trunk, weakening the trees and eventually causing them to fall.
ForestWatch will continue to monitor the area to ensure that shooting does not resume, and will report all shooting activity to Forest Service law enforcement and the Ventura County Sheriff. ForestWatch will also work with the Forest Service to ensure that the public is aware of the closure by posting signs.
Ultimately, any long-term solution to the shooting problem at Cherry Creek will require that the gate at the mouth of the canyon be closed year-round. This would allow hikers and dirtbikes to continue to use the area, but would prevent larger vehicles from hauling large amounts of trash into the area.
We will also continue to put pressure on the Forest Service to institute a forest-wide ban on target shooting. Forest officials should implement such a closure immediately so that the problem doesn’t move to some other area of the forest.
ForestWatch directs target shooters to the well-managed shooting range down the road, the Ojai Valley Gun Club in Rose Valley.