Protecting Pine Mountain and Reyes Peak
UPDATE - August 1, 2023
U.S. District Court Judge John Walter affirmed that the Reyes Peak Forest Health Project is consistent with law and Forest Service regulation in a ruling handed down July 19. The Court concluded “that the USFS relied on the best available science regarding the improvement of forest stand resilience” and that the plaintiffs “failed to demonstrate” the significant impacts alleged in their lawsuit.
Judge Walter found that Los Padres “engaged in extensive review…(and) in addition, the Decision Memo is supported by an Administrative Record of more than 12,000 pages, which includes numerous technical reviews and consultation with the (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service).” The ruling concluded that the Forest properly adhered to NEPA requirements, collaborated with partners, the public and federally recognized Tribes, and “considered the appropriate factors in its determination that the project will not significantly impact Inventoried Roadless Areas.”
This is the third forest health project litigated in court over the last five years, and the third project successfully defended by the U.S. Forest Service.
TREASURED LANDSCAPES AT RISK
On May 8, 2020, Los Padres National Forest introduced a plan to protect areas of Pine Mountain and Reyes Peak on the boundary of the Ojai and Mt. Pinos Ranger Districts that are at extreme risk due to overstocking and the devastating impacts of disease and insect infestation. The Reyes Peak Forest Health and Fuels Reduction Project lays within a federally designated Insect and Disease Treatment Area where declining forest health conditions have put the area at risk for substantial tree mortality over the next 15 years. The primary goal of this project is to reduce tree densities and promote forest resilience to insect and disease, persistent drought, and wildfire. To address these threats, professional Forest managers will selectively thin specific areas to enhance forest health across 755 acres that extend along Pine Mountain between state Highway 33 and Reyes Peak in Ventura County.
This project will improve forest health by removing small diameter (< 24”) and dead trees from densely packed stands and subsequently use prescribed burning to reduce the understory biomass. The proposed treatments would reduce hazardous surface, ladder and crown fuels, and include prescribed fire, piling and burning. High stocking levels, overlapping crown canopies, and a dense understory contribute to resource competition, leaving trees in these areas at an elevated risk from drought, insects and disease. Treating these areas would reduce competition, improve the health of the remaining trees, and increase the overall average stand diameter. Trees between the 24-inch and 64-inch diameter would be retained unless they pose a safety risk.
The understory ladder fuels, existing hazardous fuel loads, and continued periods of drought also place these areas at an increased risk from high-intensity wildfire. The treatments we propose to enact will aid in reducing the risk of high intensity fire to natural resources within the project area, as well as the surrounding landscape. When completed, this forest health enhancement will also provide safe and effective locations for firefighters to perform direct suppression operations in the event of a future wildfire.
Because falling and leaving the trees in place does not help mitigate the fire hazard, this project includes a clause to remove the trees through a commercial sale. If a willing buyer is interested, the downed trees could be removed from the forest and any revenue generated through a sale would help offset a small portion of the overall cost of the project. This form of “logging” is one of the few available tools to reduce expenses and potentially treat additional at-risk acres. In the absence of commercial interest, the forest has previously used tub grinding or chipping contracts to remove downed trees.
Sacred sites within the project area were identified and discussed with the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians and the Tejon Tribe during Government-to-Government tribal consultation to protect the cultural resources.
CONGRESSIONAL CALL TO ACTION
The 2003 Healthy Forest Restoration Act authority as amended in 2018 will be used for this project to:
- Reduce wildfire risk to communities, municipal water supplies, and other at-risk Federal lands through a collaborative process of planning, prioritizing and implementing hazardous fuels reduction projects;
- Reduce risk and increase resilience to insect or disease infestation;
- Enhance efforts to protect watersheds and address threats to forest and rangeland health;
- Protect spotted owl habitat north of the project area from the effects of catastrophic wildfire.
In 2014, Congress authorized the U.S. Forest Service to prioritize work in Insect and Disease Treatment areas, and to expeditiously plan and implement those projects. Congress also specified that certain projects within insect and disease infested areas would be categorically excluded from the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The law specified that these Categorical Exclusion (CE) projects are exempt from the pre-decisional administrative review objections process. Certain timber stand and/or wildlife habitat improvement activities also may be categorically excluded from the need for an Environmental Analysis or Environmental Impact Statement as outlined under NEPA Handbook direction (Chapter 30, Categorical Exclusions).
PROJECT UPDATE – October 2021
A formal Decision Memorandum was signed by Mt. Pinos and Ojai District Ranger Karina Medina on September 30. The Forest received considerable public input during three virtual collaborative meetings as well as fifteen thousand comments since the public scoping process began in April 2020. The Forest reviewed, analyzed and catalogued these comments and determined there were no extraordinary circumstances that would lead to significant effects.
This project will reduce fuel loading, improve forest health, and mitigate potential risks to firefighter and public safety while enhancing habitat for spotted owls and California condors. The treatments will include mechanical and hand thinning of trees and shrubs, piling and burning of cut material, mechanical mastication of smaller trees and shrubs, and prescribed pile burning and under burning. Mixed conifer stands throughout the project area would be thinned to a range of 60 to 100 square feet basal area per acre with a target of 80 square feet per acre.
The purpose and need of this project detailed the serious and growing threat of both uncontrolled wildfire in this area and the potential for the loss of life, property, and natural resources if wildfire were to occur in this area with its overgrown, bug-infested stands. Work on the project could begin in FY2022.
Links to recordings of virtual meetings for the Reyes Peak project:
Virtual Public Meeting on Reyes Peak Forest Health Project, August 13, 2020
Question & Answer
Q: Why is this project necessary?
A: The project area lays within a designated Insect and Disease Treatment Area, which was identified as being at risk to increased tree mortality. In the 2014 Farm Bill, Congress authorized the U.S. Forest Service to prioritize work in these designated areas, and to expeditiously plan and implement those projects.
Q: What is the purpose and need of this project?
A: The purpose of the project is to thin surface and ladder fuels to reduce potential fire intensities and create landscapes more resilient to the impacts of drought, disease and insects, and future wildfires. In addition, some of the treatment areas are strategic in terms of suppressing future wildfires and conducting prescribed fire management actions.
Q: What type of actual work is being proposed as part of this project?
A: The proposed work will include a combination of mechanical thinning treatments, mastication of brush and smaller trees, and hand treatments such as pruning, hand piling of material and subsequent burning. The most cost efficient and effective treatment within each stand will be chosen based on timing, equipment availability, and post-treatment results.
Q: What are the intended outcomes of this project?
A: The intended outcome is to create stands more resistant to drought, insects and disease, and devastating crown fires; encourage a mix of species and stand densities resembling the pre-fire suppression era; and encourage a stand structure that emphasizes large-diameter trees. The project is designed to reduce overstocking in selected stands and to improve the structure of live and dead material in treated stands.
Q: Is an Environmental Assessment (EA) or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) being prepared for this project?
A: The Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ) regulations allow Federal agencies to exclude from documentation in an EA or EIS certain actions that do not individually or cumulatively have significant effects on the human environment. The preliminary analysis indicates that the proposed project may not require documentation in an EA or EIS under the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003 and subsequent laws passed by Congress. Under Forest Service policy, certain timber stand and/or wildlife habitat improvement activities may be categorically excluded from the need for an EA or EIS. The project is still being analyzed and public input and collaboration will help determine if there are any extraordinary circumstances which would warrant further analysis under an EA or EIS. If an action fits within a category and the analysis shows there are no extraordinary circumstances, then the action would not have significant effects and would not warrant further analysis in an EA or EIS.
Q: Is this project exempt from compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)?
A: Categorical exclusions are not exemptions, waivers or “loopholes” to avoid a NEPA review; it is simply one way to comply with the NEPA. The CEQ regulations provide for categorical exclusions to implement NEPA for the purpose of reducing delay and paperwork.
Q: Was an environmental analysis undertaken for this project?
A: In order to utilize a categorical exclusion, resource conditions must be reviewed to determine whether extraordinary circumstances exist that may result in significant environmental effects. A science-based review of resource conditions was conducted for this project and no extraordinary circumstances were identified. A summary of this review will be recorded in the project Decision Memo.
Q: This project has been described in certain social media posts and news articles as a “commercial logging operation” or timber sale. Is it the aim of this project to sell timber under the auspices of a thinning project?
A: The sale of timber and other wood by-products is not the purpose for this project, however it’s another tool available to help move that area toward desired conditions. The trees will need to be removed to reduce fire fuels on the forest floor. We may be able to sell some of this material to help offset operational costs that would allow for treatment of additional acres. Although the value of any timber sold would be considerably less than the cost of the treatments, any cost offset would be beneficial to the public by reducing the overall cost of the project.
Q: What type of wood products could be sold through this project?
A: Commercial sale of wood products is not just focused on and limited to logs. Other by-products include firewood, biomass, poles, chips and logs.
Q: Is there recent research that supports the project’s purpose and need?
A: A 2014 report by the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station compiled research demonstrating that managing forest densities through mechanical thinning treatments and prescribed fire resulted in forested lands being less susceptible to stand-replacing wildfires or insect and disease outbreaks, as well as making ecosystems more resilient to climate change.
Q: What steps are being taken to safeguard sensitive and endangered species within the project area?
A: The project was designed with operating restrictions to avoid or minimize impacts to federally listed plants and wildlife, critical habitat, and Forest Service sensitive species. We are currently analyzing whether there are any extraordinary circumstances for plants and wildlife. One federally listed endangered species, the California condor, is within range of the project area and any impacts will be considered in consultation with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Additionally, approximately 1,200 acres of suitable California spotted owl (listed as a Regional sensitive species) roosting and foraging habitat located to the north of the Reyes Peak Forest Health and Fuels Reduction Project boundary would be enhanced. Protecting this habitat is a priority to help reduce habitat loss from high intensity fires
Q: When will the work begin on this project?
A: The project can be implemented when funding and resources are available now that the Decision Memo has been signed.
Long, Jonathan W.; Tarnay, Leland W.; North, Malcolm P. 2017. Aligning smoke management with ecological and public health goals. Journal of Forestry. 116(1): 76-86. https://doi.org/10.5849/jof.16-042
North, M, Collins, B., Keane, J. Long, J., Skinner, C. and Zielinski, B. 2014. Synopsis of emergent approaches. Pages 55-70 in in J.W. Long, L. Quinn-Davidson, C. Skinner (eds.) Science synthesis to support socioecological resilience in the Sierra Nevada and Southern Cascade Range. USDA Forest Service, PSW-GTR-247. 737pp.
Roche, J.W., Goulden, M.L, & Bales, R.C. (2018). Estimating Evapotranspiration Change due to Forest Treatment and Fire at the Basin Scale in the Sierra Nevada, California. Ecohydrology, April 2018.