By Mia Taylor with Tommy Hough
The response to the recent San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action presentation with Los Padres Forest Watchlpfw.org (LPFW) on the proposed Pine Mountain logging project, in which environmental considerations have been largely jettisoned in order to facilitate large-diameter timber cutting under the long-discredited guise of wildfire suppression, electrified our attendees.
The evening's program featured a particularly powerful presentation from LPFW conservation director Bryant Baker, who revealed that logging practices occurring on National Forest lands are often far more environmentally destructive than helpful, with the work being done primarily for the benefit of commercial timber, not the public or the environment. What's more, in the wake of such logging, forests are often left more vulnerable to wildfire than ever. This scenario again played itself out over Labor Day Weekend with the catastrophic wildfires to the north in Oregon.
And in what should come as no surprise, such corrupt, misguided and environmentally devastating practices are occurring more frequently under the Trump administration and their appointees.
While large-scale logging of old-growth and mature forest was largely discontinued on federal land in the Pacific Northwest following the Clinton administration-brokered Northwest Forest Plan in 1994, the four Southern California National Forests (Angeles, Cleveland, Los Padres, San Bernardino) were generally left out of the those science-bounds considerations due to their lack of overwhelming stands of marketable timber. Unfortunately, under Trump, large diameter trees are again being cut en masse by the Forest Service throughout the west, and with the least amount of environmental oversight and review since the "bad old days" of the federal timber-cutting frenzy of the late 1980s.
"We're seeing this a lot. It's only getting more intense under the Trump administration, and it's getting more brazen," Bryant Baker explained.
The Forest Service's current "forest thinning" proposal in the Pine Mountain area in the Los Padres National Forest is just one example of the devastation wrought by increased logging, fueled by the breathless urgency to pointlessly destroy habitat and cut the most mature, fire-resistant trees "before the next wildfire occurs."
At Pine Mountain, the Forest Service is proposing logging and chaparral removal on some 755 acres of land made up of a mixture of old-growth conifer stands of Jeffrey and Coulter pine and ancient White fir. Located near Mount Pinos and the recreation sites of the popular Frazier Park area, Pine Mountain includes a diverse array of Southern California ecosystems in which both healthy and dead trees, called snags, would be cut using heavy equipment ranging from masticators to chainsaws. The agency has made it clear a commercial logging or timber sale is likely.
"The Forest Service has acknowledged they're looking at a commercial timber sale to do this," said Baker. "This is what we're increasingly concerned with on these types of projects. They're really aimed at trying to remove certain size trees that are marketable and can be a source of revenue either for a private company that comes in and does the work, or as a direct timber sale where the Forest Service would sell the timber and keep the money for revenue."
The Forest Service has established a handful of limits for the project with regard to tree cutting at Pine Mountain, based upon tree diameter. The first is it will remove trees less than "24 inches" in diameter. This is intentionally deceptive.
In other words, the Forest Service will allow, without any questions asked, the removal of any trees that are less than two feet in diameter. In selecting that measurement, the Forest Service is relegating to an old public relations trick of making trees seem smaller than they actually are, and that these removals are inconsequential. That couldn't be further from reality.
Even to a casual observer the 23½ inch tree seen here is hardly small or inconsequential. "This is what the agency is calling a small tree," explained Baker. "We do not believe this is something that can be categorized as a small tree, but the agency is essentially telling the public they're only going to be removing small trees."
What's more, a 24-inch tree, as Baker explained, just happens to be the same size that commercial timber mills welcome. For a timber warrior like club co-founder Tommy Hough, who worked on logging issues with the National Forest Protection Alliance in Seattle in 2001 and as a staff member with Oregon Wild from 2012 to 2014, the similarities to arguments the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Managment (BLM), and Big Timber use to justify logging in the Pacific Northwest are all too familiar.
"The Forest Service still operates on the antiquated 1930s concept of 'multiple use,' and sawmills are still largely equipped to work with large diameter trees," said Tommy. "The timber industry never really bit at the idea of selectively removing smaller-diameter trees out of plantation forests because their mills simply aren't equipped to work with them other than grinding them into mulch."
The second parameter for the Pine Mountain project is the Forest Service will remove trees up to 64 inches in diameter. Again, the reality of what this means needs to be put in perspective visually for it to be truly understood. The photo here is merely of a 53-inch tree, not even the full 64 inches being proposed.
"The Forest Service is saying it can remove trees up to 64 inches for very vague reasons," said Bryant. "For safety reasons or if the tree is impacted by any dwarf mistletoe. But safety is undefined. They don't really talk about what that means. We've seen this before in other National Forests and other projects and these types of stipulations get abused because they're so vague."
According to Tommy, "Big Timber wants to sell 2 x 4s to China, and both Republican and Democratic administrations typically want to enable that. So they look for reasons to go cut big trees, wherever they may be accessible, even though the older the tree the more fire-resistant it is because of its thicker bark. Go walk in any mature forest and you'll see plenty of burn scars on older trees."
Lastly, the Forest Service will allow trees impacted by dwarf mistletoe to be removed. The devastation of this stipulation truly needs to be put into perspective. Dwarf mistletoe, as Bryant explained, is a native plant species that occurs in these forests naturally. It's an important component of mixed conifer forests made up primarily of Ponderosa and Jeffrey Pine, it serves a vital ecological function, and it increases the volume and diversity of bird species
As it happens, most trees in the Pine Mountain area have some amount of dwarf mistletoe, so when you also include the stipulation that trees with dwarf mistletoe growth can be removed, the Forest Service is allowing the cutting of all trees that are present in the project area – with no substantial limits.
Perhaps the most egregious aspect of these so-called fire suppression projects is the way the Forest Service has been directed to circumvent the typical review process. Using the cover of "categorical exclusion," the Forest Service can proceed on a project without providing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or environmental review.
The before and after images below are of a categorical exclusion project in the Plumas National Forest in Lassen County, which was conducted using the same justifications and language as the Pine Mountain project.
The first image is an area the Forest Service claimed was too dense. The agency suggested that if a wildfire burned through the area it would destroy the forest and put communities at risk. According to the agency, the removal of "biomass," i.e. living matter, or habitat, was "essential" and would be ecologically "beneficial."
The second photo, which shows the aftermath of such efforts, speaks volumes about the environmental destruction that took place.
"This is not a low impact activity," said Bryant. "This is extremely soil disturbing. This was all done for commercial timber sale. They said this was for forest health and to protect communities. This was a backcountry project that was nowhere near communities and we're seeing this all over California."
Finally, it must be understood that these projects do not aid in wildfire suppression. According to Bryant, "You'll find a lot of non-native grasses in these really disturbed areas, which only make fire more likely and make fire spread more quickly. What we're finding is that often in these really heavily-managed areas where they're doing a lot of this logging under the guise of fire mitigation it may actually be making fires worse."
According to Tommy, "Caifornia does a great deal to protect communities from earthquakes, but we need to approach wildfire and climate change with the same level of science-based seriousness."
Given the pressing need for action on this issue, we've provided some immediate resources and further action opportunities.
And while a follow-up workshop comes together, here's a Treehuggers International show Tommy recorded with Rick Halsey of the California Chaparral Institute in 2008. You'll be amazed how the same bad practices are still occurring, and how they do nothing to protect homes from wildfire.
Banner photo by Tommy Hough
Photos and graphics courtesy of Bryant Baker and Los Padres Forest Watch
A San Diego County planning commissioner and former radio host and media personality, Tommy Hough works as an environmental consultant and communications professional, and is a California Democratic Party delegate and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action.