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Condor Has Landed

The Los Padres National Forest, say those friendly brown signs welcoming visitors to its boundaries, is “a land of many uses.” Forest Supervisor Gloria Brown affirmed that motto last week when she handed down, at long last, a decision to open 52,075 acres on three of the forest’s high oil- and gas-potential areas, or HOGPAs, for exploration and development. Expanded segments in Sespe, San Cayetano and South Cuyama areas of the forest will be offered for lease by the Bureau of Land Management, perhaps as early as next spring. It is not the scorched-earth scenario some people feared when the Bush administration lifted federal protection from roadless areas. Despite the rollback of the Clinton-era rule, roadless areas and habitats significant to the forest’s endangered species — a total of 47,798 acres — will be off-limits to surface disturbance. If oil companies want what’s under those areas, they have to drill sideways — from up to a half-mile away.“It’s a good decision,” says Al Hess, the forest service’s project manager for oil and gas development. “We did provide a small amount of oil which is in line with what we’re told to do by the administration and by Congress. But I’m happy that we didn’t have to go into any of the roadless areas or condor habitat.”To the environmentalists who’d prefer to end the forest’s long tradition of oil drilling altogether, however, even “a small amount of oil” is too much. “Right now there are slightly more than 4,800 acres of existing oil drilling, and now they’re allowing 4,277 acres of new surface disturbance,” complains Jeff Kuyper of Los Padres Forest Watch, a Santa Barbara–based organization formed to oppose drilling and development within the forest. “They’re almost doubling the amount of the existing oil drilling.”Worse, says Kuyper, the three HOGPAs all border habitat essential to the California condor, which has been painstakingly brought back from the edge of extinction with a multimillion-dollar captive-breeding program. “We’re concerned the agency is targeting areas crucial for condor recovery and survival,” says Kuyper, who spent his weekend poring over the documents associated with the decision. “The Sespe HOGPA is near the Hopper Mountain Wildlife Refuge and the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, and in the third area, the South Cuyama, they’re allowing drilling right along the Sierra Madre ridge — which is one of the primary flyways for the California condor. “It’s astounding how much habitat for endangered species is going to be affected,” says Kuyper. He points to a table in the report’s fourth chapter, which indicates that 135 acres of “suitable condor habitat” will be affected by development. “How they can say that won’t have an impact on endangered species?”Two days after the decision, I visited several areas of the forest with a group of condor enthusiasts in the hopes of glimpsing a wild-born male condor repatriated to its natural habitat after years of captivity. Armed with a long metal antenna and a radio tuned to the frequency of a radio tag on the condor’s wing, we stopped at three or four spots before catching a signal in butter-colored hills around Maricopa. The bird came into view, riding air currents through the clouds, gliding in and out of the haze. While we waited for him to feed on a carcass set out not far from where we stood — condors returned to the wild are still fed roadkill, strategically placed — he drew mile-wide circles above us, giving us all just enough time to take in his large red head and 10-foot wingspan through the binoculars we steadied on our knees. Finally, he pulled in his huge, seemingly articulated wings, unfurled them again and sailed off to the other side of a ridge.After he left, the bird watchers discussed whether this was a “countable” sighting by Audubon rules (telemetry and human interference evidently throw off the odds) and whether there would ever be an alternative to lead bullets — shell casings littered the ground everywhere we walked, which made it easy to grasp why lead poisoning remains the primary threat to the prehistoric vulture’s survival. But nobody had much to say about oil and gas leasing. “It’s probably not worth falling on your sword for,” said one condor expert. “My guess is that what the forest service did was throw a bone to the oil and gas people. And it wasn’t a very big bone.” For Kuyper and his allies, however, the fight won’t be over until the last well runs dry. In mid-July, Congresswoman Lois Capps of Santa Barbara reintroduced a bill in the House to prohibit any new oil and gas development in the forest; Senators Boxer and Feinstein have seconded the motion in the Senate. In the meantime, environmentalists who oppose the decision have 45 days to file an appeal. “We will be peering through all of the documents and deciding [what to do],” says Kuyper. “Based on the documents we’ve read and the impacts to species and recreation, “I think it’s likely that we will appeal to protect the forest.”