Forest Service Approves Expedited Commercial Logging Project in Endangered California Condor Habitat

Condors roosted at sites throughout the project area nearly 50 times between 2014 and 2018, based on the most recent data available.

The following article was written by Los Padres ForestWatch.

Goleta, Calif. – On April 25, 2019, the Forest Service announced its approval of the second of two commercial logging projects in the Los Padres National Forest. The approval of the 1,600-acre project along Tecuya Ridge comes just five months after the agency authorized an adjacent 1,200-acre project allowing commercial logging in Cuddy Valley at the base of Mt. Pinos.

The agency fast-tracked both projects without preparing a standard environmental assessment or environmental impact statement, instead declaring that the projects were excluded from environmental review under a loophole in the National Environmental Policy Act. A full environmental review examines potential impacts to plants and wildlife as well as alternatives to the proposed activities. The normal review process also provides more transparency and opportunities for the public to weigh in with concerns about the project.

The logging area provides prime habitat for endangered California condors. According to condor tracking data provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, nearly fifty condor roost sites occur within a half-mile of where trees will be cut and removed. These roost sites are typically large dead or live trees that are used by condors for resting overnight between long flights. Federal standards require a minimum half-mile buffer from condor roosting sites to protect them from disturbance, given their sensitivity and importance in condor survival.

“There is simply no place for commercial logging in condor country,” said Los Padres ForestWatch Conservation Director Bryant Baker. “With approval of this project, the Forest Service is setting a dangerous precedent for shirking environmental review and public input for logging projects that can have significant impacts on endangered species in the Los Padres National Forest.”

The project would remove trees of all sizes along 12 miles of Tecuya Ridge near the northern border of the Los Padres National Forest and allow for a commercial timber sale to be offered to private logging companies. The decision states that the timber sale would make the project cheaper.

The decision—signed by Forest Supervisor Kevin Elliott—describes operations that would remove large trees using feller bunchers and rubber-tired or track-mounted log skidders and loading them onto logging trucks at cleared areas called landings. Up to 95% of smaller trees and shrubs would be mechanically masticated. The leftover slash would be tractor piled along with post-logging machine piling and pile burning. The agency anticipates that these activities would repeat every 3 to 7 years.

A New Low for Public Participation and Transparency

The two commercial logging projects represent a shift in how the Forest Service authorizes large tree removal projects in the Los Padres National Forest. Since 2006, officials have only approved such projects after rigorously evaluating their environmental impacts in an environmental assessment that is made available for public review and comment prior to approval.

One of the many areas along Tecuya Ridge that will be logged and masticated.
Other projects that were aimed at removing trees in the few mixed-conifer areas in the Los Padres National Forest have generally included a limit on the size of trees that can be removed. For example, a Frazier Mountain thinning project that was approved in 2012 only allowed for removal of trees smaller than 10 inches in diameter, or roughly the size of a basketball. Normally, anything larger than this would be left in place as countless scientific studies have highlighted the importance of retaining large, fire-resistant trees to reduce the risk of high-intensity fire. However, the recently-approved project on Tecuya Ridge as well as Cuddy Valley project would allow a timber company to remove massive, old-growth coniferous trees.

Logging Ineffective Against Wildfire Risk

The Trump Administration is billing the commercial logging project as a fire protection measure. However, countless studies have shown that logging is an ineffective or even counterproductive measure for reducing wildfire risk. Similar to many fires before it, last year’s tragic Camp Fire burned intensely and quickly through a large logged area in the Plumas National Forest and across private lands that had been subject to timber harvesting before it devastated the town of Paradise.

“The science is telling us that commercial logging projects like these not only damage critical wildlife habitat, they also usually make wildland fires spread faster and burn hotter,” said Dr. Chad Hanson, a forest ecologist with the John Muir Project. “The Forest Service’s logging proposals will increase threats to local communities from wildland fire,” he added.

Scientists have long-stated that the most effective vegetation management should take place directly around the home and immediately adjacent to communities. The Forest Service followed this model in planning two such projects in 2007 to establish defensible space directly adjacent to homes abutting national forest land and construct two fuel breaks directly adjacent to Frazier Park and Lake of the Woods. ForestWatch formally supported both projects. However, more than ten years later, the Forest Service has still not completed the approved fuel break work.

Research has also repeatedly shown that community-focused measures are more successful and cost-effective than landscape-level vegetation treatment. These measures include retrofitting existing structures with fire-safe materials, improving early warning and evacuation systems, creating fireproof community shelters, and curbing development in fire-prone areas.

Public Opposition Ignored

The Forest Service received over 1,000 public comments before the decision—approximately 99% were in opposition to the commercial logging proposal. ForestWatch submitted technical and legal comments highlighting several issues with both projects in partnership with the John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute and the Center for Biological Diversity, and another letter requesting that the projects undergo standard environmental review joined by the California Wilderness Coalition, Kern Audubon, Sequoia ForestKeeper, Kern-Kaweah Chapter of the Sierra Club, TriCounty Watchdogs, and Earth Skills. Since the Forest Service excluded these projects from environmental review, there is no formal appeals process, leaving litigation as the only option for the public to seek changes to the project. ForestWatch and its partners at the John Muir Project and Center for Biological Diversity are currently evaluating the best course of action to take to avoid impacts to the area and to endangered California condors.

46 thoughts on “Forest Service Approves Expedited Commercial Logging Project in Endangered California Condor Habitat”

  1. The press release from Los Padres ForestWatch characterizes this as a commercial logging project and offers little context. Commercial logging is involved, but that’s not the aim of the project: It’s a shaded fuelbreak. Here are excerpts from the decision memo (https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=52502):

    Decision Memo
    Tecuya Ridge Shaded Fuelbreak Project

    USDA Forest Service
    Mt. Pinos Ranger District, Los Padres National Forest
    Kern County, California

    Background The Tecuya Ridge Shaded Fuelbreak Project consists of approximately 1,626 acres of natural timbered stands and brush fields that were identified by the Mt. Pinos Community Wildfire Protection Plan and the Los Padres National Forest Strategic Fuelbreak Assessment as priority treatment areas. Forest Service specialists identified forested stands within the project area that currently exhibit stand structures that are conducive to stand-replacing wildfire events. Past fire suppression activities have led to unstable conditions in the mixed conifer and pinyon-juniper stands by allowing widespread accumulation of fuels in the form of litter accumulations, coarse woody debris, and understory growth of shrubs and conifer regeneration (Goforth and Minnich 2007). The existing understory, dense crowns, understory fuels ladders, existing fuel loads, and continued periods of drought place the stands at risk from wildfire.

    Treatment areas are strategically placed around communities within the wildland-urban intermix: Pine Mountain Club, Pinon Pines Estates, Lake of the Woods and Frazier Park, California. Treatment areas are also in strategic locations that connect to past and future treatment areas on both public and adjacent private lands.

    Since 1998, there have been 15 wildfires within the Tecuya treatment areas. Approximately 67 percent of the fire starts were caused by human-related activities. Although fires can start throughout the entire year, the majority of fire starts occur in August and September. While all of these starts were fully suppressed at less than 10 acres, there have been a number of large fires over 1,000 acres within or adjacent to the project area (USGS 2017)1. See table 1 for fires over 1,000 acres.

    On the Mount Pinos Ranger District we have been working with local individuals and groups via efforts such as the Mt. Pinos Communities Wildfire Protection Plan to establish priorities, cooperate on activities, and increase public awareness of and participation in site-specific projects such as the Tecuya Ridge Shaded Fuelbreak Project.

    ——-

    Stand exams show that the project area average mixed conifer stand has up to 480 trees per acre, greater than one-inch diameter at breast height. High stocking levels, overlapping crown canopies, and a dense understory, contribute to resource competition, leaving trees in the project area at risk to more insect attack.

    The project area contains approximately 1,541 acres of mixed conifer and pinyon-juniper dominated stands. These stands are experiencing elevated levels of bark beetle activity, pinyon ips (Ips confusus) and California fivespined ips (Ips paraconfusus), and associated increasing tree mortality that has been exacerbated by the ongoing drought. The project area was identified in the National Insect and Disease Forest Risk Assessment of 2012 (NIDFRA) as being at risk from both of these beetles. According to the risk rating models used by the Risk Assessment, the areas proposed for treatment in this project are categorized as high risk for pests that could destroy over 25 percent of basal area due to current forest conditions. This mortality combined with stand structure and drought is increasing the risk of a stand-replacing wildfire.

    ———

    Treatments would include a combination of mechanical thinning, mastication of brush/smaller trees, and hand treatments such as hand thinning, brush cutting, pruning, and piling of material. Pile burning and jackpot burning will be used to reduce fuel loads after thinning or mastication activities.

    Mixed conifer and pinyon juniper stands would be thinned to a range of 40 to 80 square feet basal area per acre. The reduction to this level would promote forest health, and create an effective shaded fuel break to assist in fire suppression. Trees would be removed throughout all diameter classes and would include the removal of commercial trees. Residual trees would be selected for vigor; however, larger Jeffrey pine would be retained per Los Padres National Forest Land Management Plan (Forest Plan) direction unless they pose a hazard or are infected with dwarf mistletoe. All black oak would be left unless they pose a hazard. Early seral species would be a priority to leave when selecting residual trees. Timbered stands with slopes generally greater than 35 percent would be mostly hand thinned. Activity fuels will be either lopped or scattered or hand piled depending on conditions such as slope. Hand piles would be burned.

    Reply
    • “You like potato and I like potahto
      You like tomato and I like tomahto
      Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto
      Let’s call the whole thing off”

      Reply
      • One significant problem for the project: there are no sawmills within 100 miles, as the condor flies.

        Reply
        • Hi Steve,

          Why would that we a “significant problem for the project?”

          As you yourself said in this thread, “Commercial logging is involved, but that’s not the aim of the project.”

          Reply
          • Because, as I said, logging is part of the project. Not the main part, but one of the means of reducing fire danger and increasing forest resilience. Without a buyer for the logs, the agency will have to find another use for the logs, such as selling it for firewood, using it in stream restoration, and so on, and that increases costs. In any case, the agency has shown that there is a need to thin some stands (828 acres of mixed conifer stands).

            The decision memo again:

            According to Oliver (1995), Jeffrey and pinyon pine trees, in stands where basal areas are over 120 square feet per acre, are at imminent risk of bark beetle-associated mortality. The average existing basal area in the pine and mixed conifer stands is slightly over 120 square feet per acre with many stands well in excess of that threshold. Treatments that reduce stocking or densities below this threshold significantly reduces risk and potentially high mortality if bark beetles invade treated stands. Prevention is not guaranteed, but improves the chances that bark beetles would bypass treated stands in search for more preferable conditions.

            Reply
            • To add something to that, at the risk of being too simplistic as a tree person and not a bird person:
              Thinning can also have positive impact on tree health, as there is less competition for water. If we think that climate change will exacerbate drought in this part of the country, we would want to make trees healthier so they would stay alive and be good for big birds to sit on (is that a roosting site?).

              Reply
        • Hmm, your condor must be flying around in circles. The Sierra Forest Products mill in Terra Bella is located less than 100 miles “as the logging truck drives” from the project area.

          Reply
          • I stand corrected. My ocular map estimation skills must be rusty. Still, that’s a ways to go, and from what I hear the few mills in So. Cal. have more logs than they know what to do with, given the harvest of dead ponderosa pine in the Sierras.

            Reply
  2. This statement is a bit misleading: “The agency fast-tracked both projects without preparing a standard environmental assessment or environmental impact statement, instead declaring that the projects were excluded from environmental review under a loophole in the National Environmental Policy Act.”

    The Forest Service pigeonholed this project under a regulatory interpretation of NEPA, specifically the categorical exception in 36 CFR 220.6(e)(6) for “timber stand and/or wildlife habitat improvement.”

    Maybe Jon Haber can explain how Earth Island Institute v. Elliot, which is currently on appeal to the 9th Circuit might affect whether the Tecuya Ridge decision is vulnerable to a court challenge? Is the Forest Service’s new strategy to invoke these regulatory CEs for a range of timber harvest activities that seem far beyond the original scope of 220.6?

    Reply
    • Here’s what the decision memo says:

      This action is categorically excluded from documentation in an environmental impact statement (EIS) or an environmental assessment (EA). The applicable category of actions is identified in agency procedures as 36 CFR 220.6(e)(6) “Timber stand and/or wildlife habitat improvement activities that do not include the use of herbicides or do not require more than 1 mile of low standard road construction.”

      As stated in 36 CFR 220.6(b), the mere presence of one or more of the resource conditions does not preclude use of a categorical exclusion (CE). It is the existence of a cause-effect relationship between a proposed action and the potential effect on these resource conditions and if such a
      relationship exists, the degree of the potential effect of a proposed action on these resource conditions that determine whether extraordinary circumstances exist. This category is applicable because the evidence presented in the project record and briefly described in each resource
      condition below, demonstrates that the actions in this decision and the degree of the effects on the resource conditions result in no extraordinary circumstances, therefore it does not warrant further analysis and documentation in an EA or EIS.

      Reply
      • The problem with the Forest Service’s approach here (see Sharon’s comment below), is they actually conducted a lot of analysis to arrive at the conclusion that there are no potential effects on resource conditions – the very conclusion that should be made after NEPA review (which includes public comment). By conducting a “behind the scenes” review to apply the CE, the Forest Service could say any project, e.g., a 50,000 acre timber sale, fits the definition of 220.6(e)(6) and would not have a “degree of potential effect” that warrants an EA/EIS. It’s absurd to think a court would just allow this (under A&C) review, without questioning whether this was the type of project that was intended to be CE’d under the purpose of 220.6(e)(6), which it clearly was not.

        Reply
        • Andy, that’s note the way CE’s work. Here’s a quote from Congressional testimony on FS CE’s (that was probably cleared by CEQ)
          ” First, I would like to clarify that categorical exclusions (CEs) are a part of National
          Environmental Policy Act implementation, not an exclusion from NEPA, as provided for by the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) regulations. The purpose of a categorical exclusion is to eliminate the need for unnecessary paperwork and effort to assess the environmental effect of actions that normally do not warrant preparation of an Environmental Assessment (EA) or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) .
          As defined by the CEQ regulations, a categorical exclusion is a category of actions which experience has indicated will not have a significant environmental effect on the environment and can be categorically excluded from documentation in an Environmental Assessment or Environmental Impact Statement (40 CFR 1508.4). Categorical exclusions (CEs) are an integral part of the implementation of NEPA and promote the cost-effective use of agency NEPA related resources.

          The Forest Service implementation of categorical exclusions considers effects, including cumulative effects, which result from implementation of management actions. The important distinction for categorical exclusions is that the agency has determined, in establishing the categorical exclusion, that these effects for the category of actions are not significant, absent extraordinary circumstances. Using the terminology of the CEQ regulations, a categorically excluded project is exempt from the more lengthy analysis and documentation in an EA or EIS because it does not have significant effects. When using a categorical exclusion, federal agencies must still comply with all requirements of any applicable laws, regulations, and policies including NEPA.” There’s more explanation at that link here.
          So you can think of it as a two layer review process, first for the CE itself and then a check by the local unit to see if the project fits into that space that was analyzed in the first review process.
          You may not be a fan of that CE. You might think they shouldn’t have used it or used another one. If the project is litigated, then the judge will get to decide whether the project fits the category or not.

          Reply
          • One more thought.. I wonder why they used that CE instead of the 2018 Congressional CE? There’s a whole ‘nother discussion to be had on the legality of Congressional CE’s and case law yet to be made.

            Reply
          • Right, but the problem is defining the category by the effects that it will have. CEs were meant to fall into a “category of actions which experience indicated will not have a significant environmental effects.” Here, the Forest Service is proposing a novel type of project, at least, one that had not been contemplated when the CE was written, and then analyzing the potential effects to see if the CE applies. That’s backwards for NEPA praxis. That’s my problem.

            Reply
            • It doesn’t seem very novel to me. It’s cutting trees down and removing them. I think people were doing that when the CE was written.

              Reply
              • Cool, why not just apply 220.6(e) to every commercial logging project then? No need for those pesky environmental impact statements…

                Reply
                • Also, what’s the point of (e)(12) and (e)(13) if the Forest Service can just use (e)(6) for any commercial logging project it says is necessary for “timber stand and/or wildlife habitat improvement.” Anyway, this decision is pretty awful for the future of NEPA analysis on national forests.

                  Reply
            • I also agree that using a CE for such a project is not a good idea. They KNEW (or should have known) that this project would be controversial and publicized, milked for all it’s worth by the eco-groups. I have to think that someone high up decided to push for a CE and hopes it slips through, despite the likelihood of losing in court. While the project might not have any serious impacts, the controversy insists that you still analyze them and jump through the few extra hoops, in exchange for a much better chance of winning in court.

              There must be some estimate of how much timber volume is involved. I doubt such a volume would be considered ‘lucrative’ by anyone in the industry. I also wonder if a local logger might bid on the project, selling the logs to SFP.

              Reply
  3. Excerpts from the decision memo on the condor:

    A biological assessment and biological evaluation was completed for wildlife (Malengo, 2018). An official species list for this project (Consultation Code 08ESMF00-2018-SLI-1969) was generated on April 26, 2018. No critical habitat for any terrestrial wildlife species, including the California condor, has been identified for the Tecuya Ridge Shaded Fuelbreak Project (Project Record, Wildlife BA. Table 1). One federally listed terrestrial species, California condor, is within range of the project area and possibly contains occupied habitat.

    …..

    • The project area does not contain optimal nesting or foraging habitat.

    • Individual condors might roost relatively infrequently in the action area and there are no communal or commonly-used nests

    • Since all known roosting/nesting sites are approximately 20 miles away, and condors are mobile, high-flying, and able to move away from any incidental smoke, extensive dispersal of the small amount of smoke expected from pile burning would have minor effects.

    • Large snags would be retained (Forest Plan Standards 14, 15, 17), however, safety at the discretion of the operator, may limit retention of snags. Although there are currently no known condor roosting sites within the action area, snag removal could reduce roosting structures. However, larger Jeffrey pine would be retained per Forest Plan direction unless they pose a hazard or are infected with dwarf mistletoe as well as all black oak.

    • The project would benefit California condors by treating fuels to help prevent large, high intensity stand replacement wildland fire that could eliminate roosting habitat over a larger area. The proposed action might improve condor foraging habitat by creating a more open area that facilitates finding and catching prey by birds like condors that are dependent upon sight for locating food.

    Reply
  4. Using Categorical Exclusions is not “exempting from NEPA review”. While some may prefer EIS’s or EA’s, they are all legitimate tools and part of the NEPA regs. to say, as it does in the news release, is not true. Now everyone may shade the truth in their own interests but I think there is a line somewhere on the road to downright lying and that particular statement crosses the line. Like bullying, I think it would be interesting to develop a standard approach that we could use for whomever is writing.

    One person’s “pigeonholing” could be another’s “choosing the right NEPA tool for the job in terms of scale and novelty of project.”

    Here’s what the USFWS has to say about the condors:

    The proposed action area does not contain optimal nesting or foraging habitat for California condors; however, California condor activity along the Tecuya Mountain ridgeline includes frequent fly-overs with the occasional stopover for temporary roosting (USFS 2018). The closest nesting areas are approximately 20 miles away near Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge and the Tehachapi Mountains (USFS 2018). To avoid effects to California condors, USFS has proposed to implement the following measures:
    1. Restrict activities within 1.5 miles of active California condor nest sites, whether they are found within or outside the action area
    2. Restrict activities within 0.5 mile of active roost sites, whether they are found within or outside the action area;
    3. Cease work if California condors were observed in the action area during implementation of maintenance and notify the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service;
    4. All trash associated with this project will be removed and properly disposed of; and
    5. Workers will undergo “hazing” training pursuant to the attached memo from the California Condor Recovery Program (see attached memo). If any California condors are attracted to work sites, the hazing measures will be implemented to avoid the possibility that the birds will become habituated to human activities, which poses a risk to their well-being (P. Lieske pers. comm. 2018a).
    We concur with your determination that the project activities are not likely to adversely affect California condors for the following reasons:
    1. The USFS proposes to implement the aforementioned avoidance measures;
    2. California condors are not known to nest within the action area;
    3. California condors are mobile, high-flying, and able to move away from any smoke that may occur from jackpot and pile burning; and
    4. The proposed project would benefit California condors by treating fuels to help prevent large, high-intensity fires that could eliminate roosting habitat over a larger area.

    Apparently someone is ticked off by this project, not sure why.

    Reply
    • Sharon, nobody is claiming that the Forest Service is “exempting” these projects from NEPA review. Where are you getting that from? The story above clearly states that the project is being “excluded” (not exempted) from standard review in an EA or EIS.

      Reply
      • I apologize for misquoting. Here is the quote “Since the Forest Service excluded these projects from environmental review…” My read is that the FS didn’t actually exclude them from environmental review – unless none of the documents listed on the website provide environmental review- which I think would be hard to argue.

        I am also curious about the 99% of people were against commercial logging on the site. So what were they for? Firewood? Burning in piles? Not doing the project at all?
        But it looks like the folks working on the CWPP were for it.. https://www.fs.usda.gov/nfs/11558/www/nepa/107660_FSPLT3_4275408.pdf
        Did they not provide public comment?

        Reply
  5. From NEPA.gov: https://ceq.doe.gov/nepa-practice/categorical-exclusions.html

    “A categorical exclusion (CE) is a class of actions that a Federal agency has determined, after review by CEQ, do not individually or cumulatively have a significant effect on the human environment and for which, therefore, neither an environmental assessment nor an environmental impact statement is normally required. The use of categorical exclusions can reduce paperwork and save time and resources.”

    Reply
    • But the project is still reviewed, and is under the NEPA regs. It could even be argued that there is more review for agency-generated CE’s as the agency has to promulgate the CE (not insignificant, I have actually done that), CEQ reviews it (and asks many questions, and questions the evidence) and then each FS project is still required to scope, analyze for extraordinary circumstances, do BEs BAs, get concurrence from FWS and so on. I don’t think that you can argue that this review is not a NEPA review.

      Check out the documents under the analysis tab, and the scoping letter, and it would be hard to argue that the project has not been reviewed/analyzed under NEPA regs.

      Reply
      • “This review is not a NEPA review.” HA! The logic of that is bewildering: the Forest Service conducts a “review” in order to determine the effects and conclude that there are no effects, so no NEPA review (the point of which is to analyze the effects) is necessary. I would love to see how fast that argument gets shot down in the 9th Circuit!

        Reply
  6. Are roost sites a limiting factor for abundance or productivity of these condors. Is there a “shortage” of roost sites? — Limiting factors: the most basic principle of habitat ecology, and the most neglected concept in American habitat management activity.

    Reply
  7. The Forest Service lies. They have to legitimize their existence and justify their jobs. Shaded fuels breaks don’t work in climate driven mega-fires; commercial thinning does not work in climate driven mega-fires; logging in general does not work in climate driven mega-fires. The FS knows this. It is an inconvenient truth they choose to ignore. Just like they ignore all the science that doesn’t support their main agenda: to log. I have reviewed thousands of CEs and they are a joke. They don’t substantively address anything, esp. cumulative effects. The interpretation for extraordinary circumstances is absurd. It’s like saying you plan to use napalm in a neighborhood and claiming while humans exist in the neighborhood they won’t be impacted or only minimally impacted. The best way to stop this travesty and others like it is in the court system. I hope Las Padres Forest Watch will litigate. The FS violated NEPA because they violated the public participation requirements. I’d bet my last dollar they violated other regs and laws as well. Sue them, repeatedly, and often.

    Reply
    • Luckily, no form of commercial logging in California National Forests is designed to stop “climate driven mega-fires”.

      BTW, is there one wildfire you can name that has been proven to be a “climate driven mega-fire”?

      Reply
  8. I appreciate Sharon’s and others efforts to debunk the dangerous and ignorant notion that this project has not undergone an appropriate level of environmental review. It has, and I applaud the Los Padres for standing up to environmental ideology with what appears to be a well thought out and analyzed project.

    Decision Memos are posted to the FS Schedule of Proposed Actions, IMO a model of transparency and a great tool for public involvement. Did anyone with concerns bother to monitor this running project list and contact the agency ? I have done so in the past, and found agency staff to be responsive and dedicated to at least returning phone calls and e-mails.

    Please do not confuse your psychological discomfort over the federal gov cutting and selling its wood with a sound and legal process that accounts for wildlife, forest health, reduced fire risk, and the good of the taxpayers. See you in court.

    Reply
    • Ironically, if this goes to court it will be over whether the Forest Service should’ve conducted an EA/EIS that followed its normal procedures, which involve formal public comment, not just informal monitoring as you suggest. IMO, the Forest Service’s inexplicable decision to not follow the proper procedures (after which it could’ve just ended up at the same result) means that the waste to the taxpayers is on the Forest Service’s hands.

      Reply
      • Again, using CE’s is a commonly accepted practice. And how did Forest Watch know that 99% of people were against it unless there was some kind of public comment? Some would argue that doing an EA when there is another, easier, tool either developed with Congressional intent or via CEQ is wasting taxpayer $.

        Reply
        • Again, using CE’s is a commonly accepted practice for treatment under 250 acres, according to the Forest Service’s own interpretation of the NEPA regs. You’re missing the point here.

          Reply
          • No I don’t think I’m missing the point. There are a variety of CEs developed by Congress or administratively. I think that there are two- one in 2014, and one in 2018 passed by Congress that are over 1000 acres? Does anyone have a current list in plain English (not the handbook) they could share?

            Reply
        • I think Andy asked a good question: “Is the Forest Service’s new strategy to invoke these regulatory CEs for a range of timber harvest activities that seem far beyond the original scope of 220.6?” I know there is supposed to be a process for establishing CEs, so there should be a record somewhere of what was intended with this CE. But just looking at the wording, I’m skeptical that it was for harvesting large trees:
          (6) Timber stand and/or wildlife habitat improvement activities that do not include the use of herbicides or do not require more than 1 mile of low standard road construction. Examples include, but are not limited to:
          (i) Girdling trees to create snags;
          (ii) Thinning or brush control to improve growth or to reduce fire hazard including the opening of an existing road to a dense timber stand;
          (iii) Prescribed burning to control understory hardwoods in stands of southern pine; and
          (iv) Prescribed burning to reduce natural fuel build-up and improve plant vigor.
          You can only stretch the “not limited to” so far, and there are other CEs that relate to things beyond girdling, thinning, brush control and burning, and “timber stand improvement” does not include removing big trees.
          (The pending Earth Island case involves a different CE, so may not offer much guidance for this one.)

          Assuming the CE does apply, then there is the issue of extraordinary circumstances, such as the importance of this area as condor habitat and potential effects. That would lead me to some factual questions about the map above showing roost sites (vs. the BE: “currently no known condor roosting sites within the action area”), the definition of “active” and what “restrict activities” near those sites requires the FS to do (and whether the FWS properly understood all this in their concurrence).

          Reply
          • I would bet it is not a FS “strategy” since the FS has the 2018 Congressional CE that can be used. Here is one story on it https://healthyforests.org/2018/04/omnibus-bill-delivers-fire-funding-fix-new-fuels-reduction-tools/:

            “The omnibus bill includes several forest management policy reforms. This includes a new 3,000-acre Categorical Exclusion (CE) under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA) for Forest Service “Wildfire Resilience” projects. The CE must use a collaborative process, consider best available science, and maximize retention of old-growth and large trees. Projects must be located within landscapes designated under the Farm Bill as of March 23, 2018. Projects may also be within the Wildland Urban Interface, or within Condition Class 2 or 3, or Fire Regime Groups I, II, or III that contain very high wildfire hazard potential. Before using this CE, the Forest Service is required to apply its “extraordinary circumstances” regulation to ensure no significant effects.”

            So I would bet that most folks will be using this one for hazardous fuels treatment, unless they aren’t in the right areas. Probably S Cal is in the right areas.

            But the fact of the matter is that the CE as you quoted says:
            Thinning or brush control to improve growth or to reduce fire hazard including the opening of an existing road to a dense timber stand;”

            I don’t really see the problem with using this CE for this project. Given that the authors of the same press release state that logging in fuel treatments never works, I am not inclined to believe their take on condors over that of the FS and FWS.

            Reply
            • You don’t suppose any of this would be a disincentive for that CE (even if they are in the right area)?
              “The CE must use a collaborative process, consider best available science, and maximize retention of old-growth and large trees.”

              “Thinning.”
              Matthew: As you yourself said in this thread, “Commercial logging is involved, but that’s not the aim of the project.”
              Steve: Because, as I said, logging is part of the project.”
              The term in question is not “commericial” but “thinning.”
              Thinning is defined by the Forest Service as an “intermediate treatment” of timber stands, presuming future treatment of stands suitable for timber production. I question whether that is what is going on here on the Los Padres (despite the phrasing of the FS documents).

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              • John, the USFS is not “presuming future treatment of stands suitable for timber production” in this case — but to create a shaded fuel break.

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                • Then this isn’t “thinning” and the CE does not apply. It is not for the purpose of creating a “shaded fuel break.” It is limited to wildlife habitat improvement or “timber stand improvement,” which is “An intermediate treatment of trees not past the sapling stage made to improve the composition, structure, condition, health, and growth of even- or uneven-aged stands” (FSM 2470). In this context, removing trees past the sapling stage is logging, not thinning.
                  See also (previously on the Los Padres): https://forestpolicypub.com/2018/08/10/you-say-logging-we-say-thinning-mechanical-treatment-or-stand-improvement/

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                  • According to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, “Fuel breaks built in timbered areas where the trees on the break are thinned and pruned to reduce the fire potential yet retain enough crown canopy to make a less favorable microclimate for surface fires.”

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  9. Larry, The Camp Fire in Paradise was a climate driven mega fire. The Ranch Fire on the Mendocino NF was a climate driven mega fire. Most of the large conflagrations with high winds and temps are climate driven mega fires. Why am I not surprised you don’t know this? Oh right, because logging will fix everything despite getting us into the current mess we are in. Logging doesn’t stop fires or even slow them down in 98% of cases. The ignorance displayed here is astonishing. I still say sue the Los Padres NF. The only language the FS understands is litigation. Sad but true.

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    • Denise, I have to ask you for your definition of a climate-driven mega fire and what evidence you have to support your claim. It seems to me that there have been many fires with high winds and temperatures, and how would it be possible to sort out which ones would have been “driven by” climate change as opposed to heat and windiness pre-climate change? What evidence is there that shaded fuel breaks are not effective? Why would non-logging folks support the use of shaded fuel breaks if they don’t work? Where do you get the number 90% from?

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    • You know, there is, decidedly, a difference between weather and climate. Plus, there is no proof that the Camp Fire was affected by logging close to town (where environmentalists insist it is the best place for it). I remind you that there were multiple ignition sources and those areas were not logged. Are you saying that if those private lands weren’t logged, that Paradise would have been miraculously saved? Of course, logging does not “stop fires”, especially since over 84% of all US wildfires are human-caused.

      Your rhetoric seems as extreme (in the other direction) as that used by Trump, himself.

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  10. What works with fires is more resources and less bureaucracy. Putting the fires out when they are small is the key.

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    • Seems like a majority of fire ecologists, scientists and researchers say that putting fires out when they are small is the key…to ensuring bigger fires in the future.

      Reply

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