Controversial Forest Thinning Project Requests Public Comment

Next Monday and Wednesday, a tree and brush removal project for the Los Padres National Forest will be discussed in two virtual meetings. The work would remove overcrowded trees and brush from a century of firefighting. It is also intended to protect the “wildland-urban interface,” or WUI, as the Los Padres borders thousands of homes in Carpinteria, Montecito, Santa Barbara and Goleta. Yet another school of thought argues that the money would be better spent on measures such as fire-rated roofing and vent closures, methods known as hearth hardening, to directly protect residences and buildings in the WUI.

The project encompasses 235,495 acres in northern Monterey County. The Padres as a whole is 2 million acres, stretching 200 miles from Los Angeles to Monterey counties. Four of its five ranger districts are part of this project: Monterey, Santa Lucia, Santa Barbara, and Mt. Pinos.

The project has two parts: one for forest health and one for fuel reduction, summarized in a 17-page “Purpose and Need and Proposed Action” report with maps. Among other techniques, the Forest Service says it plans to use controlled burns to “restore fire-adapted ecosystems,” particularly in areas of chaparral that include plants that need fire to seed and sprout. Hand or machine cutting, chipping, chewing, and scraping are other removal methods.

The report outlines how fires have been extinguished in the Los Padres over the past 90 years, resulting in frequent burning of chaparral and less frequent burning among conifers (pines and firs) and hardwoods such as oaks. Additionally, the fire frequency outlook for California is for increased fire activity. The CO2 that causes climate change also increases plant growth. It will make the weather wetter at times, increasing plant growth, and drier with more thunder activity at others. The result is a recipe for “intense and frequent wildfires in western forests,” according to the EPA.

opposing points of view

The battle lines were drawn shortly after the Forest Service sent out its request for comment in late July. The Labor and Agriculture Coalition (COLAB) sees the project as a “great opportunity to end endless forest fires” by felling trees that are 10 times the optimal level for a healthy forest ecosystem. “[W]hen there are too many trees and too much undergrowth in a forest, it becomes very difficult for the trees to compete for sunlight, nutrients, and water. The trees then become weak and susceptible to pests and diseases. They end up dying and becoming fuel for devastating wildfires,” COLAB Director Andy Caldwell wrote in an email.

That describes the “forest health” portion of the project, which is slated for about 48,000 acres. The “reduced fuels” portion totals 186,000 acres and includes fuel breaks, shaded fuel breaks, and reductions in surface and stair fuels.

In opposition to the project, Los Padres ForestWatch issued a press release opposing a “timber harvest” of trees up to 24 inches in diameter, as well as the damage inflicted by heavy equipment rolling through the forest and the aftermath of an invasion of non-native plants. Fuel gaps 1,500-2,500 feet wide would be in areas relatively far from homes and ineffective against embers blowing up to a mile in high winds. ForestWatch stated that $1.6 million in funding for the project’s environmental review came from PG&E; Ojai is out of scope for PG&E, so the Ojai Ranger District is not in this project.

This map shades the wildland-urban interface areas. Red indicates very high wildfire potential and orange high potential. | Courtesy USFS

What would be a better use of the funds, ForestWatch argued, would be to do what scientists and conservation organizations have long suggested: create defensible space next to homes, retrofit them with fire-resistant materials, and reduce development in the area. wildland-urban interface.

ForestWatch and other environmental organizations have challenged the Forest Service multiple times on similar projects, attempting to set limits on proposals in inland Ojai in recent years. Of those challenges, the Cuddy Valley and Tecuya Ridge projects were appealed, and the Forest Service prevailed. Another called Reyes Peak is in litigation, as are similar Forest Service fuel breakoff proposals for Pine Mountain, which drew strong public pushback. Those projects were measured in hundreds of acres or less.

The issue of climate change

What was not part of the debate was the carbon that would be released into the atmosphere from controlled burning. Steve Windhager, fire ecologist and director of the Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens, explained that a controlled burn has lower intensity and avoids damaging mature trees; most of the carbon would remain in those species, and the growth spurt that follows sequesters the carbon again: “Where fuel reduction is needed to save communities or to reduce fuel buildup from past fire suppression, then prescribed burning is usually the least important.” CO2 emission method to reduce that fuel load.

Windhager commented that there were many “grey” areas in the debate. He said the data was strong in showing that “the use of prescribed fires reduces the number of structures damaged by wildfires that occur later. Additionally, prescribed burning does not have as many unintended consequences associated with the spread of invasive species or negative impacts on ecological health.”

But then there are the burns that escape the best-managed controls: A stack burned in New Mexico last January survived three snowfalls to come to life during the winds of April. It was coupled with a prescribed burn, and the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire grew into a 341,000-acre conflagration that burned hundreds of structures. Windhager noted that high-profile burns that spiral out of control are far from common. “But the stakes are high, but so is doing nothing.”

However, past fire suppression created dense stands of vegetation that could arguably be removed. “All that said,” Windhager continued, “the best thing that can be done to reduce the loss of homes in the WUI as a result of the wildfires is to increase investment in hardening homes. Most homes burn from the inside out when winds blow embers into their attics or find other intrusions inside buildings. Home hardening also has no adverse effects with regards to unintended ecological impacts on our wild lands. It makes sense that this is our first choice to make our communities safer.”

In a letter sent last November, more than 200 scientists made a climate case for retaining trees to President Biden. Before the president’s reconciliation bill, which included funding for forest management, they noted that logging in US forests adds 723 million tons of CO2 to the air. Furthermore, “commercial logging conducted under the guise of ‘thinning’ and ‘fuel reduction’ generally removes mature fire-resistant trees that are necessary for forest resilience,” the letter states, adding that commercial logging and logging of trees “can alter the state of a forest”. microclimate, and can often increase the intensity of the fire.” Instead of cutting down, it was better to store carbon in older, mature forests, and allow regenerating forests to accumulate carbon, they said.

How to send feedback

For more information about the Los Padres National Forest Ecological Restoration Project, visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=62369.

To participate in the two virtual meetings of the Los Padres National Forest project:

  • Monday, August 8, 2022, 6:00-7:30 pm, Teams Live virtual meeting, https://tinyurl.com/LPNF-ERP-Mgtn-1
  • Wednesday, August 10, 2022, 6:00-7:30 pm, Teams Live virtual meeting, https://tinyurl.com/LPNF-ERP-Mgtn-2

Comments must be submitted by August 28, 2022 to: https://cara.fs2c.usda.gov/Public//CommentInput?Project=62369. Written comments go to: Los Padres National Forest Supervisor’s Office, Attn: Kyle Kinports, 1980 Old Mission Drive, Solvang, CA 93463. Write “NFLP Ecological Restoration Project” on the envelope and comment letter.

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