Pictured: A stand of Jeffrey Pine trees in the Reyes Peak area of Los Padres National Forest. Photo by Bryant Baker, Los Padres ForestWatch. 

by Kimberly Rivers

Live and dead trees up to two feet in diameter as well as old-growth chaparral are slated to be removed as part of a National Forest Service (NFS) project in the Los Padres National Forest on Reyes Peak in Ventura County. 

On Oct. 4, the NFS announced the project’s approval.  Environmental and indigenous organizations are calling the plan a logging project, but NFS says it is needed to reduce fire fuel in the forest, and ultimately will make the forest healthier. 

“The practices the forest service has been using to manage the land are no longer relevant in this critical time of our history. They should not be allowed to keep doing what they have always done,” said Mariza Sullivan, chair of the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation. “Efforts should be made to utilize Indigenous knowledge and practices that take into account adapting to living in a fire-prone environment. The forest service tends to pursue a very aggressive program of logging, clearing out valuable chaparral along the way.”

Greg Thompson, forester with the LPNF based out of Frazier Park, said there is a big difference in forest management between Northern and Southern california. 

In Southern California, “we are not in the traditional logging game, our goal is to keep the forest, the forest.” He said normally, even without an approved project like the Reyes Peak project, the forest service must and has authority to remove trees of any diameter that pose a risk to human safety. For example a dead tree that could fall into a campground or a roadway, potentially injuring a camper or blocking a road, would be slated for removal. 

He emphasized that their overall management strategy is in no way opposed to “dead snags,” which create wildlife habitat, and that the Reyes Peak project includes an effort to “try to keep any [healthy] tree over 24 inches in diameter.” He noted that dead trees in “thick” stands of mature trees would be the ones primarily targeted for removal.

As for when the Reyes Peak project will be implemented, Thompson said it could be worked into the forest service budget around “the end of the current fiscal year, so about September 2022, but more likely 2023.” Forest service staff may be used to implement the project, but for any larger felling of trees and mastication, a contractor company would be used. 

In that case Thompson puts in the request for work and a contract officer in the forest service manages the process, which could include a request for proposals, or a contractor could be selected from the pre-approved list, or it could be earmarked for a minority- or woman-owned contract company. 

Six environmental organizations issued a joint statement in response to the project’s approval condemning the plan, saying it is not about fuel reduction but rather about logging, and declaring that the NFS skirted the requirement for a more thorough environmental review of the plan by using a loophole in issuing reports from various “specialists” that were only made available to the public the day the decision was released. The process used by the NFS does not, according to the coalition of organizations, provide the public with an opportunity to respond, or appeal this decision, other than filing legal action, which is being considered.

Forest service project documents state that current vegetation in the area “consists primarily of Jeffrey Pine, Sierra Nevada mixed-conifer, white fir, chaparral, and canyon live oak. The area includes 423 acres of mixed conifer dominated stands and approximately 316 acres of chaparral.” Chaparral habitat is part of the fuel identified for removal by the project. 

“This project violates the forest service’s obligation to protect unique opportunities for the public to experience nature, in this case, beautiful, old-growth chaparral,” said Richard Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute. “Once the grinding machines are finished clearing hundreds of feet of native chaparral habitat on either side of the road, visitors will be met with little more than a scarred landscape covered in wood chips and flammable weeds.”

The organizations opposing the project’s approval are Los Padres ForestWatch, the John Muir Project, Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation, Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation, California Chaparral Institute and Keep Sespe Wild. They cite over 16,000 comments submitted opposing the plan. 

“Project opponents provided Los Padres Forest staff with a great deal of data, critiquing their logging plan and also suggesting how to improve it,” said Alasdair Coyne, conservation director with Keep Sespe Wild. “Los Padres planners ignored every one of these suggestions — meaning that their proposal remains purely and simply a logging plan.”

Coyne also challenges statements made by forest service staff that the amount of trees and timber to be removed is very small, and that there isn’t enough timber to make it a worthwhile logging project. He points to figures from Los Padres National Forest’s own calculations of 423 acres generally containing about 36 trees an acre. He then looks at data used by the timber industry. Using a “board-foot calculator, [with] figures based on 16’ long logs,” and estimating an average tree size of 18 inches in diameter, “this gives 59 board feet per tree…One board foot is 12”x12” x 1 inch thick. Multiply by 15,000 trees comes to 885,000 board feet, enough for [Los Padres National Forest] total quota. That is only allowing for one 16” log per tree.” 

The project applies to 755 acres in the Pine Mountain area, titled “Reyes Peak Forest Health and Fuels Reduction Project.” According to the NFS, the project is aimed at reducing the amount of dead wood in the forest due to “overstocking, drought and the devastating effects of insect and disease infestation.” The report states that the federal government has designated the project area as an “Insect and Disease Treatment Area” where the forest health is expected to cause more trees to die over the next 15 years. 

The report continues that the Reyes Peak project is designed to “improve forest health by removing small diameter [living trees] and dead trees from densely packed stands and using prescribed burning to reduce understory biomass.” This will address “unhealthy competition” for resources and “enhance the survivability of the remaining trees,” resulting in larger trees surviving longer. 

According to NFS, the project falls into three federal categories, “established by Congress,” that allow the project to proceed with the current process and without an environmental impact statement or environmental assessment. First, the area has been designated as subject to “Insect and Disease Infestation.” Second, the project is aligned with Wildfire Resilience approaches and, finally, the planned “improvement activities” do not “include the use of herbicides or do not require more than one mile of low standard road construction.” 

The project will include using “mechanical treatments, mastication of brush and smaller trees and hand treatments” to reduce the thickness of “selected stands.”

NFS officials have repeatedly emphasized the need for the project is about forest health to reduce fire risk, although the final documents released with the decision offer other reasons as well, including the need to have “safe and effective locations from which to perform fire suppression operations,” in order to protect the “1,200 acres of suitable California spotted owl roosting and foraging habitat” in the area. 

The coalition opposing the project points to research conducted by Los Padres ForestWatch that found “multiple California spotted owls — one of the rarest owl species in California — near the project area.”

Surface and ladder fuels are proposed to be reduced within the chaparral and conifer fuel types so that fire intensities may be reduced, and to make the area more resilient to wildfire. The project area is close to the wildland-urban interface (approximately three miles from the community of Camp Scheideck).

The Point Reyes tree and chaparral removal plan is based on the overall forest plan and “vision” which contains several goals, some amended in 2005. One stated goal is to “Improve the ability of southern California communities to limit loss of life and property and recover from the high intensity wildland fires that are a natural part of this state’s ecosystem.”

This decision is the third by the NFS to approve the removal of trees within the Los Padres National Forest, with a fourth slated for approval in Mt. Pinos early next year.  

Project information is online at: https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=58012