ORANGE COUNTY, Aug 24th – Mike Milligan trudges up the canyon, gesturing at bone-dry trees, streams that have turned to trickles and thick carpets of tinder- ready, dead leaves. A cigarette dangles from his lips, slowly becoming ash.
Milligan, the volunteer fire chief for Holy Jim Canyon and longtime cabin owner in the area, frets about fire. His firsthand experience tells him that the driest year on record – 2013 – has only grown worse. The first seven months of 2014 were the hottest ever in Orange County.
“I’ve been coming up here 50-plus years, and I’ve never seen it this bad,” Milligan said.
One problem? The canyon’s alder trees are dying. In healthy times, the alders shade fishing holes. During this drought, the tall, dead alders serve as potential torches. The desiccated trees also shed duff – dead branches and leaves – that in some spots is a foot deep.
The last time the entire forest burned was in 1908, though the smaller Indian Fire took out great patches of forest in 1980.
Reckless visitors pose the greatest threat: teenagers blasting bottle rockets and visitors lighting campfires. Every weekend, about 500 people tromp through the canyon, and something always seems to go awry. Milligan calculates he responds to some kind of incident – a small fire, a lost hiker, a car rolled over – more than once a week.
In January, two cabins burned down, the blaze sparked by a poorly installed stovepipe. Milligan says the canyon got lucky that time. If winds had been more than 10 miles per hour, he says, a forest fire could have decimated the area.
Forty-five people own cabins in Holy Jim Canyon and live in them part time, bringing friends and family for visits.
Cabin owners pay $800 a year for special recreation permits that allow them to occupy the land. They live largely off the grid, generating their own electricity and trucking in water. Cell reception is nonexistent.
Milligan fills firefighting water tanks from a spring near the entrance to the canyon. He hauls the precious water 55 gallons at a time, in an aging VW van, driving a bumpy mile and a half to tanks strategically located throughout the canyon.
It’s an inconvenient process, to say the least.
Milligan would prefer to get water for firefighting directly from the stream. But around 2008, the Forest Service disallowed creek pumping, according to Milligan. Since then cabin owners have trucked in water from the city for drinking and bathing.
The inconvenience of transporting potable water has reduced the amount of time cabin owners spend in their cabins. With fewer eyes watching the canyon, Milligan says, the odds of a fire go up.
“This is where fire is going to happen. This is what’s going to threaten everybody, especially in October and November with the Santa Ana winds.”
What the humans in the forest need is water, Milligan said.
It’s also what the fish need.
FISH OUT OF WATER
For humans in Holy Jim, drought is a problem.
For the rare steelhead trout, it’s a matter of life and death.
Or it could be. For now, there are no steelhead in Holy Jim. But the creek could be prime habitat for the fish – and probably will become so if the Forest Service gets its wish and removes the dams that block spawning routes for the trout.
In decades past, a dry time would cut a steelhead spawning stream off from the ocean, or an earthquake or flood would wipe out an entire swath of habitat, and the steelhead would survive by spawning up other rivers. But with human development encroaching throughout Southern California, the local steelhead have fewer options.
These days, when drought dries up smaller coastal streams, the steelhead often have nowhere to go.
“California has historically had mega droughts … and the steelhead have survived. But that was a different time,” said Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate and steelhead expert with the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental nonprofit advocating for dam removal. “We just don’t have the large populations of fish that are able to rebound from situations like this.”
Habitat destruction over the past 50 years has reduced an estimated population of 50,000 Southern California steelhead to less than 500. In 1997, the federal government listed the Southern California steelhead as an endangered species. In 2002, the fish’s legally designated range was expanded to include everything south of the Santa Maria River in Santa Barbara County to the Mexican border.
Homebuilder groups and others fought the endangered designation, but environmentalists prevailed in 2005, when the listing was reaffirmed.
But the precise range of the southern steelhead was still up for debate. Over the past decade, homebuilders and environmentalists sparred in court over which lands would get critical habitat protection for the fish and which lands could be freely developed. The environmentalists lost, including in Holy Jim Canyon, where land was removed from critical habitat designation.
“What we’ve got now, the final critical habitat designation, it was cut by 80 percent of what was proposed by the National Marine Fisheries biologists,” Miller said.
Despite the loss of protected habitat, plans to remove 81 dams in the Trabuco District of Cleveland National Forest – and create a habitat for southern steelhead – are moving forward.
Environmentalists are optimistic; cabin owners are worried.
‘MORE NATURAL STATE’
Four dams may come down as early as next month, though officials are waiting for money and resources to finish the actual demolition.
If that happens, residents in the canyon fear that the next flood will blast rubble their way and obliterate their cabins. Milligan, the fire chief, says Holy Jim Creek would shoot 2 million pounds of rubble straight at his property when the drought lifts and rain gushes down.
The Forest Service disagrees.
“Our removal is designed to make the stream into a more natural state, and we’re going to do it in a way that does not jeopardize the cabins,” said Trabuco District Ranger Darrell Vance. “For these structures (dams) that are serving no purpose to be obstructing natural stream flow, it makes no sense.”
At 15 feet tall, the dams may seem like a minor obstacle. But if the steelhead can’t get upstream, a whole web of ecosystem suffers.
Generally, nutrients such as water flow downhill. But steelhead help carry nutrients uphill, a natural balance for the land.
Years ago, southern steelhead in the Ynez River in Santa Barbara – a population of about 25,000 fish, some weighing 10 pounds – would bring nutrients from the ocean upstream.
A bear would swat at a steelhead in the stream, devour it, and defecate in the forest. The health of the forest was improved one fish at a time.
Scientists have even discovered that ocean-grown nitrogen benefits mountain soil in a way that land-based nitrogen doesn’t.
“Over 140 species at some point in their life feed on salmon and steelhead,” said Matt Stoecker, a fisheries biologist who has studied steelhead for nearly two decades. “By doing that, you’re helping feed mountain lions, you’re helping feed forests.”
But that’s the big-picture goal for land managers, environmentalists and the Forest Service.
The smaller picture – and the first step – is removing dams and clearing the way for southern steelhead populations to rebound, officials say.
It’s a doubly important task given the looming rise of global temperatures: Southern steelhead are better adapted for the warm temperatures that climate change will bring.
Removing dams – from 200-foot-tall monsters to 15-foot-tall rock walls in Holy Jim Canyon – will help steelhead recover.
“The second you start building a dam, you basically block fish. So in terms of degradation, it happens right away,” Stoecker said.
“But these fish are so much more resilient than we’ve given them credit for. They can come back with the same amount of speed,” he said.
– The steelhead is genetically the same as the rainbow trout, except that it spends much of its life in the ocean. Like salmon, steelhead are born in and spawn in fresh water.
– The Southern California steelhead can grow about 2 feet long and can weigh up to 10 pounds. The population has dwindled to a fraction of its former size as human development has destroyed spawning habitat.
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