Pictured: A U.S. Forest Service map, showing the project area (red) for logging plan, with identified areas (green) that are “suitable for wildlife” and a “buffer zone” (purple), uploaded to project website on Aug. 6, 2020. 

by Kimberly Rivers

Kimberly@vcreporter.com

The comment period for the Reyes Peak Forest Health and Fuels Reduction Project, a controversial federal logging plan in the Pine Mountain area of Los Padres National Forest, ends on Aug. 14 and has garnered over 10,000 comments from local individuals, indigenous tribes, businesses, elected officials and organizations. 

“Our primary concern is the project’s lack of attention and near total insensitivity to the potential impact to Chumash cultural values and resources,” said Julie Tumamait-Stenslie, chair of the Barbareño/Ventureño Band of Mission Indians, in a comment letter submitted regarding the project. “The project description’s half-page ‘Heritage’ section makes no reference at all to any field survey for cultural resources and no engagement of Chumash interests and concerns.”

Hiking trail in the Pine Mountain area. Photo by David Lockeretz.

A map posted to the project website by the Forest Service on Aug. 6 demonstrates that the federal government does not consider the project area as “suitable” for wildlife. 

“I understand the U.S. Forest Service’s own assessment of potential and existing fuel breaks in the southern Los Padres National Forest ranks this project as 118 out of 163 in terms of priority. Given the project’s low priority, it is unclear to me why this project has been selected to bypass complete environmental analysis,” said Rep. Julia Brownley of California’s 24th Congressional District, where thousands of Pine Mountain advocates live.

The project has been fast tracked and a full environmental study normally required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) has not occurred. Over a third of the project area is covered by the Central Coast Heritage Protection Act (H.R. 2199), which was approved in a bipartisan vote by the House of Representatives on Feb. 12, 2020. The bill is awaiting a vote by the Senate. The area is also under consideration for further protection under the National Defense Authorization Act, slated for conference committee review in the coming weeks.  

The project is touted by the National Forest Service as a way of preventing destructive wildfires by reducing fuel loads and creating safe places for crews to fight wildfires, and would allow contracted companies, including logging companies, to remove trees up to five feet in diameter if they are deemed a safety hazard or have the native dwarf mistletoe, a parasitic member of the ecosystem. The plan would include fire roads and when in process would see large trucks transporting removed vegetation and lumber from the site. 

“The area’s natural fire history has actually been insignificant for many hundreds of years,” stated Alasdair Coyne, founder of Keep Sespe Wild, in a comment letter. He points out that evidence on the land shows that the area does not burn as frequently as the forest service says it does, and he decries the touted purpose of reducing fire fuel in the area, saying the plan is based on old data gathered from small areas. Coyne said the forest service is incorrectly relying solely on the diameter of trees, when instead the quantity of growth rings in fallen trees in the area should be surveyed to determine the true age of the trees in the project area. He explains “…the larger 24-inch-diameter conifers proposed by Los Padres National Forest planners for removal are actually old-growth trees.”

The 755-acre project area in Ventura County’s backcountry is a popular outdoor recreation area for camping and hiking.

“Once trees are cut and the landscape is scarred by a project like this, the wilderness quality of the place is ruined,” said Rebecca August, advocacy director with Los Padres ForestWatch, highlighting that a large portion of the project area remains in its natural state and that this might be the final opportunity for public input. “We hope that those who have not yet spoken make their voices heard before it’s too late.”

Comments can be submitted online by Aug. 14 at:  cara.ecosystem-management.org/Public//CommentInput?Project=58012