Controversial forest thinning project requires public comment

Next Monday and Wednesday, the deforestation and litter removal project in the Los Padres National Forest will be brought up for discussion in two virtual meetings. The work would have cleared the century-old cramped trees and vegetation from putting out the fires. It is also intended to protect the “Wild-Urban Interface,” or WUI, as Los Padres borders thousands of homes across Carpinteria, Montecito, Santa Barbara and Julieta. However, another school of thought argues that money is best spent on measures such as fireproof roofs and venting–methods known as home hardening–to directly protect WUI’s residences and buildings.

The project extends over an area of ​​235,495 acres north to Monterey County. Los Padres as a whole is 2 million acres, stretching 200 miles from Los Angeles counties to Monterey. Four of the five ranger districts are part of this project: Monterey, Santa Lucia, Santa Barbara, and Mount Pinos.

The project consists of two parts: a forest health part and a fuel reduction part, summarized in a 17-page report “Purpose, Need and Proposed Action” with maps. Among other techniques, the Forest Service states that it plans to use controlled burns to “restore fire-adapted ecosystems,” particularly in chaparral areas that include plants that need a fire for seeds and sprouts. Cutting by hand or machines, chopping, chewing, and grazing are other removal methods.

The report describes how fires have been put out in Los Padres over the past 90 years, resulting in frequent burns and less frequent burns among conifers – pines and spruces – and hardwoods such as oaks. In addition, the forecast for the frequency of fires in California is one of increased fire activity. The carbon dioxide that causes climate change increases plant growth as well. This will increase the humidity of the weather at times, which will increase the growth of the plant, and dry out with increased thunder activity in other cases. The result is a recipe for “frequent and intense wildfires in western forests,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Opposing viewpoints

Battle lines were drawn shortly after the Forest Service sent its request for comment at the end of July. The Coalition for Action and Agriculture (COLAB) sees the project as a “major opportunity to end the never-ending wildfires” by thinning trees that are 10 times the optimum level for a healthy forest ecosystem. “[W]When there are a lot of trees and a lot of shrubs in a forest, trees find it very difficult to compete for sunlight, nutrients, and water. Then the trees weaken and become susceptible to pests and diseases. COLAB Director Andy Caldwell wrote in an email:

That describes the “forest health” portion of the project, which is slated to cover approximately 48,000 acres. The “fuel reduction” portion totals 186,000 acres and includes fuel splitters, shaded fuel splitters, and surface and peaceful fuel reductions.

In opposition to the project, Los Padres ForestWatch issued a press release that objected to “timber harvesting” from trees up to 24 inches in diameter, as well as damage to heavy equipment rolling through the forest and the subsequent impact of an invasion by non-native plants. Fuel separators 1,500 to 2,500 feet wide will be located relatively far from dwellings and less effective against embers flying up to a mile in high winds. ForestWatch reports that $1.6 million in environmental review funding for the project comes from PG&E; Ojai is outside the scope of PG&E, which is why there is no Ojai Ranger area in this project.

This map shades the areas of the land-urban interface. Red indicates a very high forest fire probability, while orange indicates a high probability. | Courtesy USFS

Forest Watch argued that what would be the best use of the funding would be to do what scientists and conservation organizations have long suggested: create defensible space next to homes, retrofitted with fire-resistant materials, and minimize development in the wild and urban frontage.

ForestWatch and other environmental organizations have challenged the Forest Service several times on similar projects, in an effort to put limits on proposals in the Ojai backcountry in the past several years. Among those challenges, the Cody Valley and Taquia Ridge projects resumed, with the Forest Service taking control. Another case called Reyes Peak is in litigation, as are For Forest’s similar proposals to break the fuel at Pine Mountain, which garnered strong public opposition. These projects were measured in hundreds of acres or less.

The issue of climate change

What was not part of the discussion was what carbon would be released into the atmosphere from controlled burns. Steve Windhager, a fire ecologist and director of the Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens, explained that controlled burning is less intense and avoids damaging mature trees; The bulk of the carbon will remain in those species, and the explosion of growth that follows sequesters carbon again: “Where fuel reduction is necessary to save communities or to reduce fuel buildup from putting out fires in the past, described fires are usually the least CO2 emitting way to reduce Carrying fuel.

Windhager commented that there are a lot of “gray” areas for discussion. He said the data was robust in showing “the use of prescribed fires reduces the number of buildings damaged by forest fires that occur later. Also, prescribed fires do not have the same amount of unintended consequences associated with the spread of invasive species or negative environmental health effects.”

But then there are the burns that stray from the best managed controls—a pile burn in New Mexico last January survived three snowfalls to spread through April’s winds. It joined a prescribed burn, and Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire grew to a 341,000-acre fire that burned hundreds of structures. Windhager noted that prominent burns that get out of control are far from common. “But the stakes are too high – but do nothing like that.”

However, putting out fires in the past has resulted in dense mounds of vegetation that arguably can be removed. Windhager continued: “All told, the greatest thing that can be done to reduce home loss in WUI as a result of wildfires is to increase investment in home hardening. Most homes burn from the inside out when winds move embers into attics or find other intrusions inside buildings. Also That home hardening has no adverse effects in terms of unintended environmental impacts on our wild lands. It makes sense that this would be our first choice of how to make our communities safer.”

In a letter sent last November, more than 200 scientists made a climate argument in favor of keeping trees for President Biden. Before the president’s reconciliation bill, which included funding for the Forest Department, they noted that cutting down US forests adds 723 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air. The letter also stated that “commercial logging conducted under the guise of ‘mitigation’ and ‘fuel reduction’ usually removes mature, fire-resistant trees needed for forest resilience,” adding that commercial logging and deforestation “can alter the local climate, and can often Sometimes the intensity of the fire increases.” Instead of cutting down trees, it was better to store carbon in mature and old forests, and allow forests to regenerate to accumulate carbon, they emphasized.

How to send comments

To learn more about the Los Padres National Forest Environmental 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 sent by August 28, 2022 to: https://cara.fs2c.usda.gov/Public//CommentInput?Project=62369. Written comments go to: Los Padres National Forest Supervisor Office, Attention: Kyle Kinports, 1980 Old Mission Drive, Solvang, CA 93463. Write “LPNF Ecological Restoration Project” on the envelope and in the comment letter.

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