Featured Wilderness: Los Padres National Forest

Los Padres National Forest; Credit: Mike SummersLocated near the intersection of the marine coastline, the warm semiarid desert of Southern California, and the cooler, wetter central regions of the state, the Los Padres National Forest forms one of the richest ecosystems in the world—attracting more than 1.8 million visitors a year. In fact, the Los Padres is one of the most heavily visited national forests in the country, drawing tourists from all over the world who come to enjoy the wide array of recreational opportunities that the rugged coastal mountains offer, including hiking, backpacking, camping, horseback riding, hunting, angling, kayaking, and mountain biking.

Extending nearly 220 miles along the coast, the Los Padres National Forest is California's second-largest national forest and forms the natural backdrop to Santa Barbara, Ventura, San Luis Obispo, Monterey, and Kern counties. The forest contains 10 wilderness areas, totaling 876,000 acres, and 84 miles of wild and scenic rivers, providing freshwater for the surrounding coastal communities.

The blend of northern and southern climates creates a unique and diverse ecosystem that provides habitat for some 468 species of wildlife and more than 1,200 plant species. Of those, more than 90 are at risk of extinction, including the San Joaquin kit fox, steelhead trout, California spotted owl, Smith's blue butterfly, arroyo toad and the California jewelflower. The most famous is the California condor.

The largest bird in North America, the California condor has a wingspan of up to 9.5 feet. In the 1980s, the population of this bird reached a perilously low number—only nine left in the wild, despite efforts to establish sanctuaries. Today, while still seriously endangered, there are more than 150 condors in the wild and about the same number in captivity. The Los Padres is the primary reintroduction site in California. The Sisquoc Sanctuary in the San Rafael Wilderness and the Sespe Condor Sanctuary in Ventura County provide the birds with inaccessible, high rocky cliffs, so they can roost, nest, hunt, and bathe free from human contact.

While public access to the sanctuaries is restricted, condors can still be seen at a number of places, including the observation site at the summit of nearby Mount Pinos. A short hike leads to this lookout, where the condors can be seen from June to October. (Directions to the Mount Pinos Condor Observation Site)

Despite Los Padres' distinctive environment, diverse wildlife habitat, and outstanding recreational opportunities, the forest is under increasing pressure from surrounding development. Oil drilling occurs on 15,000 acres of the forest near some of the most sensitive areas, such as the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, and active proposals for more commercial development are being considered. In addition to oil and gas drilling, other threats such as livestock overgrazing, off-road-vehicle use, and mining are having significant impacts on wildlife, water, and wild lands.

In March, Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.) introduced legislation to preserve some 66,000 acres of wild public land in the Los Padres. The Los Padres Conservation and Recreation Act of 2012 (H.R. 4109) would expand the current boundaries of the Matilija, Dick Smith, and Sespe wilderness areas. It would also establish the 18,250-acre Condor Ridge Scenic Area, which overlooks the crest of the Gaviota Coast in Santa Barbara County and protect more than 74 miles of wild and scenic rivers. Developed over three years with stakeholders in California, the legislation “protects the recreational activities of forest users as well as the pristine parts of the forest,” Gallegly said. The bill is awaiting a hearing in the House Natural Resources Committee.

Local stakeholders and Californians from across the state have worked tirelessly to add to the forest's rich wilderness legacy and will continue to strive to protect the Los Padres National Forest's recreational opportunities, clean water, and habitat for hundreds of plant and wildlife species for future generations to enjoy.