Access to Cedar Creek Falls from the trailhead in San Diego Country Estates will open on April 5 under a Visitor Use Permit System as planned, despite the county’s lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service, said a spokesman for the federal agency.
On Friday, March 29, three days after Cleveland National Forest announced the trailhead opening, San Diego County reported that it is suing the U.S. Forest Service to get the agency to set aside that decision.
“The lawsuit is in response to the forest service’s decision to ignore both the public safety and fiscal concerns raised by the county during the appeal of the permit system plan,” County Supervisor Dianne Jacob said. “Adequate law enforcement staffing must be in place before the trail is opened back up. Either the forest service needs to be able to enforce its own rules, or pay the Sheriff’s Department to do it.”
Brian Harris, Cleveland National Forest public affairs officer, said officials held a meeting on Monday afternoon and decided to move ahead with implementation of the permit system while the agency’s general counsel reviews the lawsuit.
Under the new system, a permit will only be required for those recreating within the Cedar Creek Falls visitor use permit area, which is in the immediate space around the falls. The San Diego River Gorge Trailhead that leads to the falls is at the end of Thornbush Road in San Diego Country Estates.
The falls and trailhead have been closed since July 2011, following numerous emergency rescues and the death of a teenager who fell at the falls on July 6, 2011.
Initially 75 visitor use permits for individuals and/or groups of up to five people will be available each day by reservation. Permits to visit the falls will be reserved through the National Recreation Reservation Service (NRRS) website. Reserving a visitor use permit will require a $6 administrative fee per permit for up to 5 people. The fee allows NRRS to operate and maintain the reservation system, according to the forest service.
Drinking water should be available soon at the trailhead, said Harris.
The Ramona Fire Department/Cal Fire responded to many medical emergencies that were the result of dehydration or heat exhaustion as visitors hiked in extreme heat without enough water.
The forest service has been working with the Ramona Municipal Water District, which has a tank nearby, to bring water to the trailhead. RMWD General Manager David Barnum said the district has received approval from the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) and will be installing a meter. There is no cost to ratepayers, Barnum said, as the forest service will pay for the water usage, connections, and fixtures.
Cedar Creek Falls has long been a popular recreation destination. Dramatic growth in visitation in recent years has resulted in a variety of issues, including medical emergencies, natural resource degradation, parking and traffic congestion on neighborhood streets adjacent to the trailhead, and complaints of noise and trash.
A permanent closure of cliffs immediately surrounding the falls will prohibit jumping and diving from the cliffs. The plan also permanently prohibits the possession and consumption of alcohol in the visitor use permit area, at the San Diego River Gorge Trailhead and trail that leads to the falls, as well as the Saddleback Trailhead and Eagle Peak Road that leads to the falls on the Julian side.
Cleveland National Forest said forest service law enforcement officers will enforce the permit rules and regulations and violators will be fined.
Trail users who are not recreating within the visitor use permit area surrounding the falls will not be required to obtain a permit. All users of the trailhead are allowed to park in the trailhead parking lot on Thornbush Road free-of-charge, but space is limited and offered on a first-come, first served basis, said the forest service.
“Our plan for implementation is the most balanced approach available to us to restore public access to Cedar Creek Falls while addressing natural resources and public concerns,” said William Metz, Cleveland National Forest supervisor.
The forest service will monitor the performance of the permit system by an adaptive management that uses a series of three metrics to address natural and social issues: litter left behind by area visitors, wetland and riparian health, and erosion from the proliferation of user-created trails in the permit area. Based on the monitoring, the number of permits issued per day can be decreased or increased, said the forest service.
Visitor use permits can be reserved 24 hours per day, seven days a week, by contacting NRRS at www.recreation.gov. For more information, contact the Palomar Ranger District at 760-788-0250.