PICTURED: Mixed conifer forest on Pine Mountain. Photo by Bryant Baker/Los Padres ForestWatch

by Alex Wilson
rwilson@timespublications.com

Rising over 7,000 feet, with panoramic views stretching across Los Padres National Forest to the Pacific Ocean, nearly everyone agrees Pine Mountain north of Ojai is worth protecting.

Considered sacred by Chumash people, Pine Mountain is nearly devoid of humans when covered by a blanket of snow in the winter, the solitude only punctuated by wind rushing through the trees and bird song. During warmer months it’s beloved for camping, stargazing and rock climbing. 

But the question of how to preserve Pine Mountain has led to one of the most hotly contested battles in the history of the Los Padres National Forest.

A plan by the U.S. Forest Service to cut down trees and chop up dense chaparral has led to three related federal lawsuits by a coalition including environmental groups, business interests, Ventura County government and the city of Ojai.

Opponents say the “Reyes Peak Forest Health and Fuels Reduction Project” will harm wildlife including endangered California condors and rare plants, and violates the National Environmental Policy Act by using an expedited review process.

But forest service officials said the project is in alignment with federal law, and aims to reduce the chances of wildfires that could devastate old-growth pine forests if nothing is done to reduce the amount of combustible fuel.

Reyes Peak project area looking towards Mount Pinos. Photo courtesy USFS

“This project is in an insect-and-disease-ravaged area where trees are overstocked. The stands are too big to support the number of trees that are there, so that’s resulted in increased tree mortality which is forecasted to only get worse over the next 10 to 15 years,” said Andrew Madsen, public affairs officer with Los Padres National Forest.

The Reyes Peak Project would cover 755 acres, according to forest service officials. Several methods would be used to clear brush and remove both live and dead trees, including mechanized equipment. According to the lawsuit, trees up to 64 inches in diameter would be removed, with no limit to the number that can be cut down.

Questions re: fire prevention, environmental review

Alasdair Coyne is conservation director for Keep Sespe Wild, one of several environmental groups that sued the federal government. Coyne said more than 15,000 people have spoken out against the project since it was announced in 2020 and approved a few months ago.  

Coyne said he questions whether the project would actually prevent destructive wildfires.

“When the forest service went ahead with their plan, and as far as we can see, made no effort to address any of the real and scientific concerns about the program, then we felt the only real option was to challenge it in court,” Coyne said.

The forest service used a “categorical exclusion” which is one of the main points of contention in the lawsuit, since that process involves a less extensive review than an environmental impact statement.

“They’re kind of skirting environmental review,” Coyne said. “They didn’t follow the procedures they should have.”

Madsen said his agency has a policy of not commenting on specifics about pending litigation, but did discuss aspects of the plan with the Ventura County Reporter. He said the expedited review process followed federal law because the forest service does not believe there will be significant environmental impacts.

“Contrary to what you might hear, they’re not loopholes; they were actually created by Congress,” Madsen said, because projects like this one were taking too long to get done. “Congress was like, ‘These shouldn’t take years.’” 

Madsen said the project will cost about $1.5 million and is part of a 10-year plan for forest management announced a few months ago by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. In a recently passed infrastructure plan, $5 billion in funding for these types of projects nationwide was identified.

“This project is also aligned with a larger national effort on the part of the forest service to address the wildfire crisis that has been created by this overstocking and by these dead and dying trees,” Madsen said. “You risk having a catastrophic crown fire coming through there. Whereas if we were to clean up these areas a little bit, should a wildfire start, it would work its way through there and wouldn’t get up in the crowns, it would stay on the floor of the forest.” 

Concerns over adverse effects

Maggie Hall, senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara, said the project will do more harm than good.

“There is no question that Reyes Peak will be adversely affected by this logging project, which authorizes the removal of large trees in an area that includes unique ‘sky island’ habitat, sacred cultural sites, potential wilderness, and sensitive wildlife,” Hall said.

While environmental groups frequently describe the plan as a logging project, forest service officials say opening the area to logging companies is not the main goal and there’s been very little interest in using the wood generated by the project. Madsen said any money generated by timber sales would be minimal.

Ventura-based outdoor clothing maker Patagonia also joined the lawsuit.

“The area is important to our employees and customers because of its outdoor recreation opportunities including rock climbing, hiking and camping,” said Hans Cole, head of environmental campaigns and advocacy at Patagonia.

Other groups named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Los Padres ForestWatch, American Alpine Club, Earth Island Institute, the Center for Biological Diversity and California Chaparral Institute.

Pine Mountain project area. Photo by Bryant Baker/Los Padres ForestWatch

Coyne said making sure Pine Mountain is left in its current state is worth the legal effort.

“It’s just a magnificent spot to hang out. And to have that disturbed and decimated by a big logging program over hundreds of acres, it just really upsets a lot of people and I think that’s why public support has been so strong to oppose this plan,” Coyne said.

Battle brewing over Mount Pinos

It’s expected that the lawsuit will take at least a year to resolve and the project will be on hold until there’s a settlement or final decision by the courts.

As the lawsuit progresses, another battle is looming on the horizon. The U.S. Forest Service is planning a similar project on Mount Pinos, a nearby mountain topping 8,000 feet, clearly visible from the top of Pine Mountain. 


Details of the Reyes Peak Forest Health and Fuels Reduction Project can be found at

www.fs.usda.gov/nfs/11558/www/nepa/113561_FSPLT3_5668791.pdf.

More on the opposition to the project can be found at

http://protectpinemountain.org/