For our community, for our neighborhood ... for the oaks

by Wanda Kwiatt

raveling down the twisted, narrow Mussey Grade Road in Ramona, one is embraced by its natural woodland canopy. San Diego residents may remember it as part of the Old Julian Highway, before the San Vicente Reservoir was built. Flooding the small town of Foster established the dead-end road now named Mussey Grade Road.

Time has stood still in this pristine little valley since stagecoach travelers first beheld it. The seasonal west branch of the San Vicente Creek meanders adjacent to the road, occasionally crossing under it. Bobcats and large wildlife travel along the creek. Giant oak trees are home to a variety of birds. One neighbor's letter to save these oaks called them "treasures and landmarks of Mussey Grade." Over one hundred years of travelers under this woodland canopy would agree.

Four years ago, my family moved to an old ranch next to the oak woodland. I'll never forget the first time I heard the falling crack of an aged oak echoing through the woods. Drought and wind followed by rain naturally felled the old tree, leaving a massive hole in the woodland canopy. I mourned its loss until the sun shone through the hole, revealing several young trees that had been struggling for light. I'm sure it will be a hundred years or so before the canopy is replaced by one of these younger trees. Of course, people unfamiliar with this area wouldn't notice the canopy lacking one tree. But if one tree's loss impacts these woods so greatly, I feel half an acre 9 to 13 mature trees must be significant to the woodland as a whole.

At a Ramona Community Planning meeting, I was shown plans to improve an additional 5 - 10 foot pathway along the west side of Mussey Grade Road for non-motorized uses. A quick count revealed about 81 mature oak trees in the proposed pathway project. A petition was circulated, and 10 residents attended the next planning meeting with 45 signatures and 15 letters. One letter from a young resident summed it up: "Those oak trees have been standing there for hundreds of years. It would be a shame to take them out now. Trails are nice, but not at the expense of the oaks."

During the last two years, I've written letters, spoken at county public meetings and encouraged neighbors to participate. This neighborhood was successful in removing the pathway project though the middle of this oak woodland. But that is just one threat to the woodland.

A project at the top of the valley was stopped for illegally grading a massive road near our resident eagle's nest that sent eroded soils into the creek. A small plan for four lots was cited for building an unpermitted earth culvert across the creek. A proposed 12-lot subdivision along the outside fringe of the oaks woodland recently reduced its plan to 5 lots, removing leach field within the woodland.

A proposed 13-lot subdivision plans to impact .49 acres of oak woodland. While this is a true improvement over their original plan of impacting 3 acres, it still includes a new road impacting 9 to 13 mature trees. These projects may mitigate by planting 10 one-gallon oak tress for the loss of each mature oak tree. But would the critters stay?

If everyone got what they wanted, there would be nothing left. Projects want "Negative Declarations" from the county, stating they have no significant impacts. Grading violators only pay a $500 fine, added to their permit costs. In June of 1996, I publicly requested that the Board of Supervisors provide stronger grading enforcement. The County Chief Administrator reported back with 426 backlogged uncollected cases and planned to send new notification reminders.

I do believe that each one of these projects planned to take advantage of this scenic woodland, too. However, I wonder after everyone is finished impacting the oaks only a little each time, carefully planting 10 one-gallon oak for the loss of each mature tree will the result resemble a woodland or an oak landscape? Will there be pristine areas left for multiple-habitat planning efforts like the MSCP to preserve?

I've checked into the Regional Growth Management Strategy and there's no enforcement. We're busy protecting the same trees over and over again. It's insanity. We're worn thin.

But people do make the difference. Chi Vanardo and her two daughters, third-generation Mussey Grade residents, wrote letters and asked neighbors to help save the oaks. On a larger scale, Iron Mountain Conservancy continually educates all who want to learn about the precious resources found in Ramona. Tim Moore, president of IMC, was the first person I called when oaks started to fall on Mussey Grade. That led me to attend the IMC Winter Raptor Watches led by Fred Sproul, to witness eagles foraging in the Ramona Airport native grasslands, a wildlife corridor for migrating birds. Ramona resident Dave Bittner of the Eagle Survey Project [see SDET 2/97], has collected data showing that preserving eagle foraging areas is as important as protecting their nests.

At a planning group meeting, I saw plans to develop 740 houses in the native grasslands around the airport. The community plan called for a maximum of 166 houses. Does it make sense to locate structures next to an airport? Haven't we learned from the problems of people whose houses are next to airports? Aren't areas next to airports better left to open-space uses? The resident golden eagles and burrowing owls can still survive there. Doesn't diminishing native grasslands containing San Diego's largest vernal pools matter? Open-space uses would solve the public services and infrastructure dilemma.

This planned infringement called myself and other Ramona residents to arms. It started with knocking on doors, and Ramonan hospitality allowed us to quickly form the Neighborhood Coalition. Meeting in homes, we explained the planning process: the importance of public comment on projects, letter writing, and participation in public meetings to identify key quality-of-life issues for our community.

This drawing was done especially for SDET by Callie Moriah, age 17, to express her view of the woods she loves.

Kristi Mansolf, a founder of Ramonans for Sensible Growth, endlessly rallied residents to be become involved in the planning and future of their community. The mission of RSG is to preserve and enhance the rural character of the Ramona community and encourage land uses which are compatible with a rural lifestyle.

Kristi was motivated by her numerous hikes up Mt. Woodson, with its birds-eye view of Ramona's remaining grasslands and the entire pastoral canvas. The latest Airport Extension Project proposes commercial and industrial development right in the center of this grassland. It will take more dedicated people to balance environment and growth. Because that's what people want - balance. We aren't anti-growth, but we want sensible development that respects the community and the environment.

Growth that respects our environment has turned into an active family affair. Our five children help with phone messages and enter information into our computer. My husband's "honey-do list" now includes earth errands. Our eldest daughter drew the bird on the first edition of the Iron Mountain Conservancy's Santa Maria Valley bird checklist. We experienced a very special moment when she chose to miss a few hours of school to speak before the Planning Commission on the Resource Protection Ordinance. My 9-year-old son states with a smile, "I started this [making a difference] when I did my third grade report on golden eagles, huh Mom?" His concerns encourage me, especially when I come home from meetings and he asks, "How many trees did you save today, Mom?" "I'm not sure," I answer. "I think all I do is try to save the same trees every week."

IMC has set up an Eagle Fund to preserve eagle habitat. As part of IMC educational lecture series, Ramona Our Heritage Our Home, Richard Carrico will present "Prehistoric Peoples of the Valley of the Sun, Ramona's First Inhabitants" on April 25, 7pm at the Ramona Elementary (junction of 8th and F). IMC: (760) 788-WILD; Ramonans for Sensible Growth: (760) 789-7502; Neighborhood Coalition (760) 788-6788.