Lawsuit will question fuel breaks

The Los Padres National Forest has proposed the Santa Barbara Mountain Communities Defense Zone Project.

“The desired condition for chaparral is to establish a diversity of shrub age classes in key areas near communities to improve the effectiveness of fire suppression operations. Adequate defensible space around communities could greatly reduce the risk of structure loss, as well as improve safety for residents. Thus, at the urban interface there will be a management emphasis on direct community protection. This could be accomplished in at least two ways: (1) by removing or heavily modifying shrublands immediately adjacent to populated areas (Wildland-Urban Interface Defense Zones); and (2) by strategically creating blocks of young, less flammable vegetation near the interface areas. Both types of fuels modification could slow or even halt the rate of fire spread into urban areas.”

Two conservation organizations have filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court “to protect fragile habitat and rare species in the path of a massive, remote fuel break recently approved in the Los Padres National Forest.”  According to this article, “The suit is also an effort to encourage the Los Padres National Forest to focus on reducing fire risk where it matters most, directly in and around communities.”   Interestingly, the Forest Service used a categorical exclusion from NEPA, which suggests that they think there is no scientific controversy about the effects of fire breaks that are beyond the area needed for defensible space.  I’d like to see a court weigh in on this, and how far away “near” and “remote” are, but it might just decide that a CE for “timber stand improvement” can’t be used where there is no timber.


  1. Fuel breaks have been used for decades in areas not immediately adjacent to communities. This does make sense, as such strategically placed fuel breaks can and do help prevent fires from burning into communities, even if they are some distance away.

  2. Regardless of compliance with NEPA, and any ESA issues for firebreaks,,,the Los Padres NF is a firetrap. Always will be. The region is ecologically evolved to be burned every 5 years or so. Due to drought, and Smokey’s policies, fire conditions are shocking. Instead of fire resistant chaparral at 2-4′, it is now 6-8′ high. Nearby non-native eucalyptus groves are dead or dying. Native Oaks are severely stressed.
    I am from this region and recently visited after 2 decades. 50 years ago, there were firebreaks as wide as 6 massive bulldozers on nearby Vandenberg AFB for fire prevention. No longer. That chaparral and scattered oak region is ready for another catastrophic fire. So too is the LPNF.

  3. I recall reading recently (can’t remember where) that, pre-European, the Indians burned the chaparral every few years and, with frequent burning, the plants quickly re-sprouted. The chaparral was more patchy so that fire movement was more limited to the older patches and less likely to spread. However, without that frequent burning, a long fire interval allowed the fuels to build up and a fire would then tend to kill the chaparral. With our hands-off Smoky Bear policy, fires are now more infrequent but far more catastrophic with rapid water run-off, mud slides, and so forth. Maybe the Indians had something to teach us.

    • Dick, the fire suppression model does not fit with California chaparral. As I mentioned above, the natural fire return interval for chaparral on the Los Padres is 30 to 150 years. A fire interval of 5 years would eliminate the ecosystem and type convert it to weedy grasses.

      Infrequent, high-intensity crown fires are what the chaparral evolved with.

      Regarding Native American burning, have really have no idea what they did along the Gaviota Coast, however, their excessive burning likely led to the type-conversion of native shrubland to grassland between Buellton to San Luis Obispo.

      Smokey Bear has an important role to play in chaparral for that very reason.
      More here, including the research papers:

  4. There is also an interesting planning issue in this case (thanks, Kevin for the link to the complaint). According to the complaint, the forest plan includes this requirement “'[w]hen planning projects . . . in areas that contain habitat for [sensitive species,] use the information found in various types of species guidance documents to develop project-specific design criteria’ that avoid or mitigate impacts to those sensitive species of their habitat. LMP Appendix H at 71.” The Forest Plan incorporates guidance documents for three sensitive species: the Refugio manzanita, late-flowering mariposa lily, and California legless lizard. This project allegedly did not develop the necessary design criteria and effects would not be mitigated.

    This is a case where a forest plan provided discretion to project-level decision makers to decide what kind of mitigation measures are needed, and this is what can happen. In particular, there can be lawsuits about abusing that discretion on each project. Also, if a court were to decide that the forest plan allows destruction of sensitive species and their habitat, that may indicate that the plan itself fails to meet the NFMA requirement for the plan to provide habitat for viable populations of these species because it allows too much discretion at the project level. Providing too much discretion is unwise and maybe illegal. (This is similar to the situation I discussed with my post on the Helena-Lewis and Clark elk standard, except applied to at-risk species.)

  5. Jon – I feel your concern is misplaced here. The issue is the use (or non-use) of the plan’s content. As you point out, all the info is present to account for sensitive species…it appears that the discretion afforded to the FS official was not executed. That is not a plan-error, it’s an execution error.

  6. Maybe that outcome is the most likely one. But I can imagine government attorneys trying to win the case by saying it was not an execution error, and sometimes the Forest Service wins. In that case, a possible outcome would be that the project correctly followed the plan, but the plan was flawed.

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