By the Los Padres ForestWatch
[Last week], the U.S. Forest Service extended the public comment period for a plan to log large trees and clear native chaparral habitat across 235,000 acres (368 square miles) of Los Padres National Forest. The extension was prompted by widespread opposition and requests from Congress and the public.
In announcing the 30-day time extension, forest officials rejected calls for a much longer extension and refused multiple requests to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the highest level of environmental review required under federal law.
The so-called “Ecological Restoration Project” announced last month includes 48,000 acres of logging, grinding, and other vegetation removal across several “treatment units” in addition to 186,000 acres of tree and shrub removal along roads, trails, and in many remote parts of the national forest. The project would allow the use of heavy equipment to log live and dead trees up to two feet in diameter across many forested areas, and larger trees with no diameter limit could be removed across the 186,000 acres of vaguely described “fuel break and defense zones.” If the project moves forward and receives approval from the agency, damaging timber harvest and chaparral removal activities could take place from Mt. Pinos to Pine Mountain, and from Figueroa Mountain to Big Sur without any further site-specific environmental analysis or public notice (interactive map).
A short 30-day comment period was announced in late July and was scheduled to expire on August 28. Congressman Salud Carbajal submitted a formal request to the Forest Service requesting an extension of the comment period for an additional 90 days to accommodate input by the public and independent experts. The letter also requested preparation of an EIS.
“With such diversity and immense terrain, an Environmental Impact Statement will provide a more complete analysis and give more opportunities for public comment,” states the request from Congressman Carbajal dated August 11. “It will also provide for a deeper examination related to rare and endemic flora within inventoried roadless areas and potential wilderness areas.”
Many areas targeted for clearing are currently being reviewed by Congress for protection as wilderness under the Central Coast Heritage Protection Act introduced by Rep. Carbajal and co-sponsored by other local representatives including Rep. Brownley and Rep. Panetta. The bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives last month and is awaiting a vote in the Senate as part of a larger legislative package. According to analysis of official mapping data obtained from the agency, about 35,000 acres of the new project overlaps with the new land designations.
On Wednesday, a letter signed by 71 environmental organizations, museums, and community groups lodged a similar request, and outlined a series of concerns with the project. In addition, in the three weeks since the project was first announced, more than 1,100 people have submitted comments opposing the project.
“If a project that involves heavy equipment use and intensive native vegetation removal across 235,000 acres—including 56,000 acres of designated critical habitat for federally threatened or endangered species—does not rise to the need for an EIS, then what does?” states the letter from the groups, which also requests a 90-day extension of the comment period and a commitment to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement. Groups signing the letter include Los Padres ForestWatch, The Wilderness Society, Chalon Indian Council of Bakersfield, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, the Wildling Museum, Green Latinos, Environmental Defense Center, Environmental Center of San Luis Obispo (ECOSLO), Hispanic Access Foundation, California Native Plant Society, Patagonia, Center for Biological Diversity, Latino Outdoors, Ojai Raptor Center, Keep Sespe Wild, North County Watch, Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project (MICOP), Pacific Crest Trail Association, Runners for Public Lands, Santa Barbara County Action Network (SBCAN), and several local chapters of the Sierra Club and Audubon Society.
Forest officials plan to prepare a less-detailed report called an Environmental Assessment for the project. This “brief” document is not nearly as robust as an EIS, which is typically prepared for projects of this size and scope.
For nearly 80% of the project area, there is no diameter limit for tree removal. The proposal states that only “some” trees would be retained in these areas. Fuel breaks would be up to 1,500 feet wide depending on the vegetation type, but preliminary analysis of mapping data has revealed that several fuel breaks could be 2,000 to 5,000 feet wide. Researchers have found that fuel breaks are ineffective at limiting the spread of large wildfires, especially under extreme weather conditions such as Santa Ana or sundowner winds. These conditions have been a driving force of some of the region’s largest blazes, such as the 2017 Thomas Fire.
Scientists and conservation organizations have long advocated that instead of going to backcountry logging and vegetation removal projects, 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. Areas where native trees and shrubs are removed with heavy equipment are also prone to being infested with non-native invasive plants that can increase wildfire risk.
Officials are accepting public comments on the proposal until September 27. Visit LPFW.org/ERP to easily submit a comment online.