Source: Los Padres ForestWatch
[On Wednesday], the Forest Service announced plans to cut thousands of trees across nearly 1,600 acres atop Mt. Pinos, an important Chumash site in the Los Padres National Forest that lies at the physical and spiritual center of local indigenous tribes. The area is also popular for recreation and is home to several sensitive plants and animals.
The project would allow removal of mature trees up to two feet wide in diameter across 2.5 square miles. The Forest Service intends to use a controversial loophole to bypass requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to conduct a detailed study of potential impacts to the area’s unique ecosystems and to examine less-damaging alternatives. The use of the loophole also limits the public’s ability to voice concerns and eliminates the official objection process that helps reduce the potential for litigation.
The mountain is historically and currently central to Chumash culture as the place where the world’s equilibrium is maintained. The project area is cradled by the Chumash Wilderness and near the eastern head of the well-known Tumamait Trail, named for Vincent Tumamait, a Chumash elder, conservationist, and storyteller.
Snow sports, hiking, biking, and horseback riding draw throngs of locals and tourists to Mt. Pinos throughout the year. The project area includes two well-loved campgrounds, Chula Vista and McGill, and is traversed by the popular McGill trail.
The mountainside is home to sagebrush scrub, wet meadows, pinyon pine woodlands, and mixed-conifer forest. The project area is one of the few places where corn lilies, western blue flag, and other high elevation wildflowers can be found in the Los Padres National Forest. Species the Forest Service has designated as sensitive, such as the Mt. Pinos larkspur and flax-like monardella, as well as the federally threatened southern mountain buckwheat have been documented within the project area. All of these species may be negatively affected by the use of heavy logging and mastication equipment. The area is also home to iconic wildlife including mountain lions, black bears, bobcats, and coyotes. Numerous rare species of small mammals and birds, such as the northern goshawk, have been observed in the area and throughout the unique habitats that cover the mountain.
The Forest Service has previously acknowledged that the project could involve a private timber sale or could be completed through agreements known as “stewardship contracts” that allow private logging companies to profit from the timber harvest in exchange for services. The ideal diameter for logs bound for commercial mills is 12” to 14” in diameter. The Trump administration incentivized sales of timber harvested on federal lands by reducing the price of harvested wood that companies pay taxpayers by half. The Biden administration has not yet reversed this action.
The project comes amidst the Biden administration’s review of several expedited logging projects across the country. It is part of an alarming trend of commercial logging proposals in the Los Padres National Forest that began under the previous administration. Two such projects located nearby are currently under review by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and a third project on Pine Mountain in Ventura County has been significantly delayed after pushback from local Chumash groups and over 15,000 scientists, elected officials, business owners, and members of the public. All three projects were proposed under loopholes that similarly allowed the agency to avoid conducting the level of environmental review that is normal for such projects.
“As we race to address climate change, the need to protect our last remaining wild forests is more important than ever,” said ForestWatch Director of Advocacy, Rebecca August. “A healthy mature network of ecosystems, as is found on Mt. Pinos, is naturally adapted to wildfire and sequesters enormous amounts of carbon. Cutting trees will just cause unnecessary damage to these important qualities.”
The Forest Service has justified the use of loopholes by claiming it will improve “wildfire resilience.” However, the latest science indicates that forests such as those found on Mt. Pinos are naturally highly resilient to wildfire. The main type of forest in the area has evolved over the last several million years to experience mixed-intensity fire that burns most areas at low or moderate-ntensity with patches throughout that burn at high intensity. Such wildfire creates complex and diverse habitat that is vital for dozens of plant and animal species.
Studies have found that that forest thinning and other vegetation removal activities can actually decrease wildfire resilience in forests by removing fire-resistant trees, increasing heating and drying of the forest floor, and spreading non-native invasive grasses and weeds that ignite more easily and spread wildfire more quickly under non-extreme weather conditions. These types of projects usually kill more trees than would otherwise be killed in a wildfire, and the trees that are cut are either removed and sold or burned in piles rather than left in place. Countless studies have found that trees killed by fire, drought, or insects continue to provide critical habitat for countless species for decades after they die as well as recycle nutrients into the soil.
“As climate change increases wildfire activity in the region, the inordinate focus on trying to alter native ecosystems through vegetation clearing has been a consistently failed strategy,” said ForestWatch Conservation Director Bryant Baker. “There is an urgent need to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and turn the tide on climate change, and in the meantime, our best approach to wildfire is to learn to live with it and focus our limited time and resources on our most vulnerable communities themselves.”
Scientists and conservation organizations have long advocated that wildfire funding should be directed to creating defensible space directly next to homes, retrofitting and building structures with fire-safe materials, and reducing development in the wildland-urban interface.
The public comment period is open until May 7, and may be the only chance the public has to weigh in with concerns about the Mt. Pinos project. To submit a comment online or learn more about the project, visit LPFW.org/pinos.