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Damage to the White Rock day use area in the Santa Barbara ranger district. (Photo: National Forest Service)

Storms Battered This California Forest. Now It‘s Closed Until Mid-March.

Los Padres National Forest received 100 percent of its annual rainfall over the past 30 days. Now, roads, campgrounds, and trails are shuttered due to flooding and erosion.

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Mary Beth “Mouse” Skylis

from Backpacker

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California’s Los Padres National Forest is closed to the public until March 14 after sustaining catastrophic damage in a series of winter storms. Under the new closure order, the public is banned from using forest service roads, campgrounds, and trails across the Ojai, Santa Barbara, Santa Lucia, and Monterey Ranger Districts.

The news means that one of the state’s largest swaths of public lands is now off-limits to the public.

Over the last month, Los Padres and the region surrounding it received more than 100 percent of its normal annual rainfall, plus high wind activity, which resulted in substantial damage to both the forest and the forest’s infrastructure. Like much of California, this area suffered heavy impacts from a series of atmospheric rivers, which brought 17 to 18 inches of rainfall over the course of just two days. As a result, Los Padres National Forest is dealing with flooding, debris, slope failures, bridge, road and trail failures. The rain even washed entire campgrounds away.

Entering Los Padres National Forest without proper permission while the order is in effect could result in a $5,000 to 10,000 fine, and up to 6 months in prison. 

“We’re taking this precautionary step to ensure visitor safety as we determine the extent of the damage and develop a strategy to prioritize and address the extensive impacts to infrastructure and natural resources,” Chris Stubbs, the Los Padres forest supervisor, stated. “I’m asking the public to heed the closure order while these recovery efforts are underway. My intention is to re-open closed areas as soon as it’s safe to do so.”

After receiving unprecedented amounts of rain, it isn’t yet clear when Los Padres National Forest will open again. Crews have to evaluate the damage the forest sustained sustained before permitting public access. The process is expected to take several weeks. 

“The closure order will be superseded or terminated when conditions and recreational access improves,” the USFS said in a news release. “Forest employees will be assessing the extent of the damage over the coming weeks and months and will scale back the closure based on improving conditions.”

Adding to the difficulty of making Los Padres National Forest safe for travel is that wilderness areas ban the use of mechanized tools in most scenarios. This could lead to lengthier closures in areas like the Monterey Ranger District, which received the bulk of the damage and put a since-rescinded evacuation order in place. Other parts of Los Padres National Forest are likely to reopen over the next few weeks. 

Several additional storms hit California over the weekend, showering at a rate of half an inch per hour. Since the atmospheric rivers began, at least 19 people have died. President Biden approved measures that would declare the storms in California a major disaster, opening up additional federal funding for the response.

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Lead Photo: National Forest Service

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