Pictured: Trees up to 64″ in diameter, under certain conditions, can be removed as part of a proposal of the U.S. Forest Service. The tree shown here is only 45″ in diameter. Photo submitted, Los Padres ForestWatch

by Kimberly Rivers

kimberly@vcreporter.com

The United States Forest Service (USFS) has issued a plan allowing the removal of certain old-growth trees and chaparral in 755 acres of the Los Padres National Forest, including areas in Ventura County and along the borders of the Sespe Wilderness area.

(Online correction: the print version of the story including incorrect information about the location of the project area. It has been corrected online.) 

The project description of the Reyes Peak Forest Health and Fuels Reduction Project says the plan is designed to “reduce surface and ladder fuels, reduce potential fire intensities and make the area more resilient to wildfire,” in order “to provide safe and effective locations from which to perform fire suppression operations, to slow the spread of a wildland fire at these strategic fuelbreak locations, and to reduce the potential for the loss of life, property, and natural resources.”

Project area is inside the red line.

But several organizations and scientists say the plan will have the opposite effect, pointing to studies that show removal of vegetation in remote areas, similar to the project area, have little to no effect against the type of fire that causes damage to communities along the urban wildland interface zone. Those scientists argue that resources should instead be devoted to clearance around structures in the border area.

“This destructive logging proposal would degrade wildlife habitat and make climate change worse, and would increase threats to human communities from wildland fire; we need Congress to protect our national forests from logging once and for all,” said Dr. Chad Hanson, forest ecologist with the John Muir Project of the Earth Island Institute, based in Big Bear City, California.

“The Los Padres National Forest administration has a record of not only ignoring the science, but also of violating agreements to collaborate with scientists and community members to manage the public’s land,” said Richard Halsey, director of the Escondido-based California Chaparral Institute. “Los Padres officials are well aware that the science does not support this project to clear fragile habitat far from communities at risk. This project is about obtaining taxpayer dollars to support the agency, not protecting citizens from fire.”

The project allows trees up to five feet in diameter and centuries old, along with old-growth chaparral, to be removed along a six-mile ridge on Pine Mountain between Highway 33 and Reyes Peak. The larger trees can only be removed under certain conditions, such as when dwarf mistletoe is growing on the tree or when they are deemed a safety hazard.

The project description states, “Worker safety is a priority for all projects and removal of trees in the 24-inch to 64-inch diameter at breast height class would be on a case-by-case basis to provide for the safety of employees, contractors and the public, and overall forest health.”

“Once again, the Trump administration has shown its willingness and desire to avoid conducting the level of environmental review needed to ensure that places like Pine Mountain are protected from damaging and unnecessary projects such as this one,” said Bryant Baker, conservation director with Los Padres ForestWatch (LPFW). The fast-tracked authorization means no environmental review, limited public input and the removal of the appeal process. Baker said LPFW is particularly concerned that the wording of the project could create loopholes that  “leave open the possibility for very large tree removal.” 

In the case of the parasitic dwarf mistletoe, Baker said the plant plays an important  role in the ecosystem and that some forest ecologists advocate for leaving it alone. He noted that some studies show increased bird diversity where dwarf mistletoe grows. Baker also pointed out that loopholes were allowed in similar projects approved under the 2003 Healthy Forest Restoration Act, 2014 Farm Bill and a 2018 omnibus spending bill. 

“Just goes to show how tricky these loopholes are as they seem to often get developed as part of massive pieces of legislation, likely as riders proposed by timber industry-backed members of Congress,” said Baker. 

Methods of forest thinning and tree and chaparral removal include prescribed burning, thinning by hand, pruning, pile and burn, and mechanical thinning with machinery where appropriate. 

Link to the full project description: https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=58012

Public comments can be submitted electronically by August 14, 2020 to: cara.ecosystem-management.org/Public/CommentInput?Project=58012. Comments may also be submitted to the Mt. Pinos Ranger District office. (Update: the comment deadline was extended to August 14)

Information from Los Padres ForestWatch: LPFW.org/pine.