Big Bird’s Slippery Slope

Al Hess wants to do the right thing. After 38 years with the U.S. Forest Service, 27 of them overseeing mineral extraction in the Los Padres National Forest, Hess knows well the fine art of balancing the various economic benefits of national-forest land against other public values, like healthy wildlife habitats and vistas clear of machinery. And sometime soon, before he retires later this year, Hess would like to settle the question to which he’s devoted his last decade on the job: whether the Forest Service should grant permission to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to lease more land within the forest’s boundaries for the recovery of oil and natural gas.

The answer, which is expected at the end of July, accompanied by a final report detailing the terms of those leases, will likely be yes — albeit a muted, conditional yes freighted with constraints to preserve the recreational and aesthetic wilderness values of the forest, as well as the critical habitats of several endangered species, including the arroyo toad, the California red-legged frog and the California condor, whose tentative comeback from the edge of extinction still depends largely on a captive-breeding program that costs around a third of a million dollars per bird. The Forest Service places a high priority on the prehistoric vulture’s well-being, he says, in managing existing oil operations and approving any new plans for drilling. “The oil companies know they’re under a microscope,” says Hess, “especially when it comes to a high-profile case like the condor.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has dictated 13 measures to protect the condor from oil development, including locating new drilling sites no less than 1.5 miles from known or historic condor nesting sites and equipping new power poles with “raptor guards” to save condors from electrocution. “These guys are so big,” Hess explains, “that they can reach both the positive and negative wires at the same time with their wings.” Vast swaths of wilderness already permanently withdrawn from leasing will be augmented by regions marked “no surface occupancy,” from which oil and gas could be recovered only by slant drilling from as much as a half-mile away. The 38 areas of the forest designated roadless by a late-term Clinton administration rule will remain so, even though those restrictions have since been repealed by the Bush administration. When the final plans are drawn up, Hess claims, only a little more than 20 acres of forest will sustain any surface disturbance.

“We’re going to be very respectful of wilderness values,” Hess told me. He reports that Los Padres Forest Supervisor Gloria Brown, with whom the final decision rests, “realizes that the little bit of oil we’ve got — well, there are more important values than that.”

That “little bit of oil” and oil equivalent, including natural gas, Hess estimates at about 120 million barrels, or about a five-day supply by U.S. consumption standards. “It’s not a whole lot of oil,” he admits, “and that’s one of the criticisms we’ve had. Why are you going to allow development in the forest for just a little drop in the bucket?

“Basically, what it comes down to is that we are not a national park. Congress says that minerals extraction is a legitimate use of national forest, and we have direction to do that, where appropriate. We have taken into account the environmental values, which we appreciate, but we do feel there are small, limited areas where this could occur without environmental problems.”

It comes as no great revelation that many environmentalists object, some of them strenuously. “I will be heartened,” says Pamela Flick, California program coordinator for Defenders of Wildlife, “if they decide not to go into every high oil and gas potential area for one barrel of oil. But if they lease anything at all, they have failed to recognize the impacts to open space and habitat. There are going to be explosions, black soot filling the air, lights in the night for months on end, flaring the unusable petroleum products. And what if there’s a spill?

“If they choose a ‘no action’ alternative,” Flick says, “we’ll stand up and applaud. But the only good impact is no new impact. If it were up to us, we’d rip the old oil fields out, too.”

Hess, an outdoorsy type with a full head of gray hair, large-framed wire-rimmed glasses, and socks in his Birkenstocks, considers himself a “reasonable person.” He is well-regarded by oilmen and environmentalists alike, including Flick, as a man who gives straight answers and isn’t beholden to any one side. “You couldn’t have a better man working on this project,” says Bruce Palmer, the former coordinator of the condor-recovery program for U.S. Fish and Wildlife. But Hess clearly misses the days before endless lawsuits and appeals followed every decision.

“Some people just won’t see the other side,” he griped. “I personally don’t have any use for those people, because they just stifle progress. There’s usually room to find a solution, if you really look at it. If people are reasonable, they can get there. But if you start out ‘I’m over here and you’re over there and that’s all there is to it,’ what can you say?”

The 1.9 million–acre Los Padres National Forest stretches out across several jurisdictions, counties, cities and communities for 220 miles, from northwest Los Angeles County to the coast of Big Sur. Oil has long been part of its legacy: Way back in 1867, 26-year-old Thomas Bard, of Pennsylvania, struck a source just south of the current forest boundaries; under his management, Ojai No. 6 became the first commercial oil well in California to yield extended commercial production, and with the wealth and influence of his California Petroleum Co. behind him, he went on to become a U.S. senator. At the site of the former well is a plaque commemorating his contribution to California’s oil heritage; a few hundred yards away, across Highway 150, which runs from Ojai to Santa Paula, natural seeps pour black tar like syrup over the hills.

Within the forest boundaries are three producing oil fields, including the Cuyama, at the main section of the forest’s northern edge, and the Sespe, which abuts the Sespe Condor Sanctuary and the Hopper Mountain Wildlife Refuge on the southeast. They are small fields — together they produce a mere 500,000 barrels a year (the U.S. consumes 20 million barrels per day) — but harm to the condor has not been trivial. In the last four years, three rare chicks hatched in the wild have been found dead with their guts full of “microtrash” — bottle caps, bits of wire, zinc-coated screws — presumed to have come at least in part from the detritus of oil workers (although Mark Hall, at U.S. Fish and Wildlife, suggests it may also have come from “people who go up and party in the mountains”). A more incriminating incident happened in early 2002, when an adult male condor dipped his head in a puddle of oil and returned to his nest, spreading oil on the first condor born in the wild in 18 years.

Hess says he isn’t sure that it was oil on the bird — “it could have been water,” he says — but Bruce Palmer, who was still at U.S. Fish and Wildlife then, has no such doubts. It was the height of a drought, and the adult vulture mistook the shiny pond for a thrist-quenching pool. “That male bird gave everybody a good scare,” he remembers. “He was pretty well covered in oil; it was matted in his feathers. The nest watchers saw the bird trying to rub the oil off, to purge its body of that foreign material.”

And what about the chick?

“The chick is dead,” says Palmer.

No one knows for sure that oil was the culprit, but it sure didn’t help. “There could have been effects that we were not able to measure or see,” he says. “It’s very hard to say.”

Palmer left Fish and Wildlife a few years ago, and now works as an environmental consultant throughout the Southwest. He still lauds the captive-breeding program, which has returned 118 condors to the wild in the last few years in Arizona, California and Baja California (another 156 remain in captivity). But like many other wildlife advocates, he laments that so little has been done to restore the birds’ habitat since the last condor was taken from the wild in 1987. “There’s a kind of thinking that doesn’t focus so much on habitat, because the zoos can pump out birds and replace them. That turns my stomach, that whole philosophy.” Lead from hunters’ bullets still sickens and kills the condors that feed on the remains of shot animals; deadly trinkets easily mistaken for bone fragments still litter the creatures’ landscape. Worst of all, in Palmer’s view, human activity around the periphery of condor sanctuaries still goes unmonitored. “They have to be afraid of people to survive in the wild,” Palmer says. “When a bird becomes habituated — accustomed to human presence — it always results in death.”

It’s not the direct disturbances of new oil wells that bother Palmer; he thinks the hazards of microtrash, oil spills and antifreeze “can be pretty well addressed” by the Forest Service. He has “no problems” with the proposed Tejon Ranch project on the eastern edge of the condors’ habitat, “because they’ll actually have biological monitors in place to intercept any problem before it gets critical.” He believes, “There is room on the landscape for both oil and gas development and for condors, as long as it’s done thoughtfully.” What worries him is the simple idea of condors getting too comfortable around people. “Even if they have a two-mile buffer zone, these birds can see that far as easily as we can look across the room.”

It matters less, says Palmer, whether 20 or 200 acres get drilled. What matters is where those acres are. Even increased drilling around the Sespe, so close to the condors’ safe haven, may not have as serious an impact as the proposed leasing area up in the Cuyama Valley, where the Sierra Madre Ridge “is used extensively by the condors as the highway; it’s where the air currents and wind currents are such that they just soar. It’s a very important movement corridor.”

Palmer argues that only increased monitoring of the birds, with updated satellite telemetry equipment, can address the problem. But he doubts it figures into the government’s plan. “The Forest Service doesn’t have the funds to monitor birds at that level,” he says. “To handle that increased data would cost a total of anywhere from $100,000 to $250,000 per year.” On the other hand, Palmer estimates that the cost of the captive-breeding program over the years has topped $40 million. Divide that by the current population of birds, and even a quarter of a million dollars doesn’t seem so bad.

Some of that money could even come from the oil and gas companies themselves. “When they issue a permit,” says Palmer, “there can be fees tied to that lease that are very straightforward. That’s not well accepted by the oil and gas industry, because a lot of these efforts are geared toward the small operators. But there needs to be a way to channel some of the money they make back to the birds.”

When I ran that by Hess, he admitted he’d never heard of such a thing. “It sounds like a good idea,” he said, “but a lot of things are good ideas, and a lot of what we’re requiring is already expensive” — and, consequently, less attractive to dollar-conscious energy companies. A few years back, the BLM offered two parcels just outside the forest for lease at an auction in Bakersfield, and there wasn’t a single bid on either one. Then again, the price of oil back then hovered around $28 a barrel; this week, it’s nudging over $60, and yesterday’s lousy deal may be today’s economically viable bonanza. Hess says the oil companies haven’t been “banging on the door asking us to hurry up and finish our reports. But I think these days, there might be more interest.”


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >