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Santa Maria Sun / Commentary

The following article was posted on May 15th, 2019, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 20, Issue 11 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 20, Issue 11

Expedited logging projects won't protect communities from wildfire

By BRYANT BAKER

The May 2 column by the anonymous Canary (“Spinning and spinning”) took aim at environmental groups for informing the public about two commercial logging projects that have been approved in the Los Padres National Forest near Mt. Pinos.

The two projects proposed last year by the Forest Service cover almost 4 1/2 square miles near Mt. Pinos. Each project was approved using a loophole that allows the agency to avoid preparing a standard environmental assessment for projects of that size and potential impact. And both projects allow commercial logging with no limit on the size of trees that can be removed and sold through a subsequent timber sale to logging companies.

Nearly 50 endangered California condor roosting sites occur within a half-mile of the proposed logging area, where companies will target the large trees that endangered condors use for roosting overnight between long flights across the landscape. Because the agency didn’t prepare an environmental assessment, no alternatives to commercial logging were examined. Without the normal environmental review process in place, the public only had one short comment period to voice concerns, and there is no formal appeals process provided.

It’s no coincidence that just four months ago, President Donald Trump issued an executive order directing the Forest Service to expedite commercial logging on national forests across the country. The lack of transparency and environmental assessments we’re now witnessing locally in the Los Padres National Forest is a direct result of this scientifically unsound policy from Washington, D.C.

Both projects were justified using misleading and incorrect data analyses that seem to indicate the forests are overgrown. Our colleague, forest ecologist Dr. Chad Hanson, analyzed the Forest Service’s own data and found that the average number of trees per acre in the project areas is five times lower than the agency claimed and is even less than historic levels. The Forest Service is perpetuating a myth that our local forests are overgrown in order to justify these scientifically unsound logging projects.

These logging projects are primarily targeting live, healthy trees, though ecologically vital dead trees (known to forest ecologists as “snags”) will also be removed. Condors and other species rely on large snags, yet agencies often use these dead trees as an excuse to conduct logging in the name of fire prevention. Perhaps counterintuitively, nearly every empirical study that has examined this issue has found that not only do dead trees not increase the risk of wildfire, they often reduce fire severity.

The Canary seems willing to allow environmentally destructive logging projects anywhere and everywhere, flapping up its wings and stating that “the whole forest is basically a fire hazard.” More accurately, the whole forest is a thriving landscape composed of diverse ecosystems that can suffer immensely from logging and other vegetation removal projects. Essentially all vegetation in the Western United States can and will burn under the right conditions. Along the Central Coast, old newspaper articles and other records have shown that wildfires burned entire towns and displaced people for weeks at a time during the 1800s and early 1900s, yet our national forest and other lands in California are being treated as if they’ve only suddenly become prone to wildfire. This isn’t a new phenomenon.

What is new, however, is that thousands of flammable homes have been developed in fire-prone areas. A rapid increase in human-caused ignitions and fire frequency have caused many chaparral-covered areas to be converted to nonnative and ignition-prone grasses and weeds. And dangerous power lines now transect the national forest in several places. These issues have undoubtedly increased fire risks for communities, but scientists agree that the best way to protect homes and people is to focus on measures that can be taken within the communities themselves. Large-scale vegetation projects like commercial logging will do nothing to stop extreme wind-driven fires, which are the type of wildfires that account for the vast majority of damage to communities each year.

Instead of logging trees miles away from most homes, we should be spending our limited time and funding on programs that help residents retrofit older homes with fire-safe materials like double-pane windows, fire-resistant siding, and ember screens for vents. Funding should also be directed toward improving early warning and evacuation systems and constructing fireproof community shelters in the most at-risk communities. Vegetation management has its place, of course. Scientists have found that targeted vegetation removal within 100 feet of a structure can increase the odds of its survival during a wildfire. The science shows that vegetation clearance beyond 100 feet doesn’t improve structure survivability any further, however.

And as the state continues to grow, cities and counties have to look at ways to discourage or prevent new development in fire-prone areas. Funding programs aimed at buying properties before they’re developed have been successful in other areas and can serve as a model for the Central Coast.

These commercial logging projects that have been proposed and approved under a federal administration that has consistently attempted to open public lands to extractive industries are clearly not the answer to reducing fire risks in communities. The projects could very well give these communities a false sense of security like that experienced in the recently devastated town of Paradise in Northern California. The Forest Service conducted similar projects in the area between the Camp Fire’s ignition point and that town, but unfortunately, those efforts didn’t keep most homes from burning.

At the very least, the Forest Service should prepare full environmental assessments that examine alternatives, science, and impacts to species such as endangered condors before moving forward. Our communities deserve thoughtful, strategic, science-based approaches to wildfire protection, not commercial logging projects that are rushed through the process with minimal input from scientists and the public. Our public lands—and our communities—deserve much better than this. ❍

Bryant Baker is the conservation director for Los Padres ForestWatch. Send your thoughts through the editor at clanham@santamariasun.com. Or you can write a letter to the editor for publication and email it to letters@santamariasun.com.




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