What Stalled the U.S. Forest Service from Fuel Treatments Around Grizzly Flats? Capradio Article

This is a really interesting story.. thanks to Michael Wara on Twitter!  It goes into the nuts and bolts of why a project on the Eldorado didn’t get done on time to help a community.  A conversation followed in which the question was asked whether fuels funding is targeted to the communities that need it most or have more people/political clout or matching funds due to people/political clout.  This was a topic of discussion in Colorado even back when I was working.. partnerships are good and to be fostered, but to what extent is there also an environmental justice component and how should that be addressed? For example, the State of Colorado requires less of a match for state wildfire mitigation grants in areas that it has mapped as lower income.

Anyway, really good and lengthy article, lots of interviews with FS folks, no paywall so you can read the whole thing. There’s several pieces about “what slowed the project down that could have helped.”

  • The Forest Service originally committed to finishing the Trestle Project by 2020 — a year before the Caldor Fire would later ignite. Due to a complex web of regulatory delays, logistical challenges and resource shortages, the agency pushed back the completion date to as late as 2032 — three decades after its initial warning to Grizzly Flats.


Nelson helped devise the Trestle Project as a big step toward his goal. It would create a miles-wide fuel reduction buffer east and south of Grizzly Flats.

When the Forest Service finally announced the project in 2013, the agency sent a letter to residents describing 16,000 acres of planned work. (A miscalculation led to the document overstating the work by nearly 1,000 acres. The actual number was just over 15,000.) It laid out an expeditious — and optimistic — timeline. The analysis was supposed to take about a year, with the forest management work scheduled to wrap up by 2020.

Almost immediately the project encountered an onslaught of hurdles and delays.

“It’s sad to think about what could have been,” said Michael Wara, a climate policy expert at Stanford University who recently toured Grizzly Flats. “[If] all this work was done by 2020, Grizzly Flats might still be there.”

‘We Don’t Have That Kind Of Time Any Longer’

One of the most aggressive objections to the Trestle Project came from Chad Hanson, co-founder of the John Muir Project, a nonprofit that aims to protect biodiversity in national forests and fiercely opposes tree removal. One of Hanson’s primary concerns was the spotted owl, which is designated as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

In a written objection to the Forest Service in 2015, Hanson argued the Trestle Project would “pose a serious and unacceptable threat to owl populations on the Eldorado National Forest.”

Elsewhere, Hanson has argued that commercial tree removal could exacerbate wildfire intensity. Leading fire scientists have publicly pushed back against a number of Hanson’s claims; one expert even called his positions “self-serving garbage.”

The project’s 296-page environmental impact statement devoted dozens of pages to analyzing potential impacts on the spotted owl. The report also invited public comment that demanded thoroughly researched responses from the Forest Service. The agency developed alternative maps, taking into account spotted owls and sensitive species of frog and trout.

The Forest Service also put out other reports, including one that identified a likely ignition point very close to where the Caldor Fire would later start.

As the Forest Service spun out reams of paperwork, Almer reminded the agency that Grizzly Flats remained woefully exposed to wildfires that were growing more severe every year.

“The most aggressive treatment of the [Trestle Project’s] fire fuels is critical to preventing the ‘loss of our community,’” wrote Almer in a 2015 public comment about the project on behalf of the Grizzly Flats Fire Safe Council. “Everything that can be done, must be done.”

He followed up this plea with a 2017 letter addressed to Randy Moore, who at the time led the agency’s Pacific Southwest Region.


Over the next four years, the Forest Service completed only a fraction of the Trestle Project.

It called for fuel reduction across more than 15,000 acres of land around Grizzly Flats, but completed work on just over 2,000 of those acres.

A cell phone tower disguised as a tree holds some of the only green “foliage” near the center of Grizzly Flats, California, Thursday, August 4, 2022.Andrew Nixon / CapRadio

Prescribed fire, considered crucial by fire scientists, was nowhere to be found. The project called for more than 10,000 acres of intentional low-intensity fire, but the agency only completed 136 acres of “pile burns,” the process of collecting and burning logs and vegetation that is widely considered much less impactful.

The agency instead prioritized commercial tree thinning, which generates revenue that offsets costs.

Generally, commercial thinning and other treatments designed to reduce fuel loads are a necessary precursor to prescribed fires, according to Rogers.

“Largely, we’re not going to be able to put fire on the ground before that work is completed,” he said.

But Trestle Project reports and Forest Service data show the vast majority of the planned prescribed fire was intended as the first treatment.

Wildfire researchers and former Forest Service officials say it’s disappointing the agency would focus on commercial thinning over other forms of treatment.

“The evidence that commercial thinning really reduces risk is not that good,” said Wara, the Stanford climate policy expert. “If you thin and then burn in an area, then you get dramatic risk reduction.”

Meanwhile, areas adjacent to the community that the Forest Service identified as “first priority” were left untouched and overgrown. One stands out: The highly overgrown — and highly combustible — southern border, which would have dovetailed with the buffer zone that Mark Almer and the Grizzly Flats Fire Safe Council worked on for over a decade.

“The part that didn’t get treated was the part we should have been most worried about,” said Hugh Safford, who spent two decades as the Forest Service’s senior ecologist in California before retiring in late 2021.

The steep, dense and dry south-facing terrain made it one of the more complicated parts of the project, but also the most essential, Safford noted.


And the piece also looks at why it’s easier to complete commercial thinning (plannable) over prescribed fire (risky and not so much plannable)


Forest Service employees call them “Goldilocks days” — the brief window when weather, moisture levels, personnel demands and air quality all line up so prescribed burns can be done safely. Those days are becoming increasingly rare as hotter temperatures, severe drought and erratic weather patterns become facts of everyday life.

Rogers, the current Placerville district ranger, said his unit had a prescribed burn planned for spring of 2021, months before the Caldor Fire ignited.

“We had to cancel because conditions just weren’t quite right,” he said. “The historic drought conditions really cannot be overstated.” ….

Then there’s the staffing problem. Setting and managing a prescribed fire requires a lot of personnel. Longer and more extreme fire seasons mean crews ping-pong from district to district and fire to fire, often remaining on the frontlines for weeks at a time with no break. That prevents them from managing prescribed burns and tackling other vegetation reduction projects in their home districts.

Here’s the part about Lake Tahoe:

That doesn’t mean all projects struggle to secure funding. From 2008 to 2019, a partnership of private organizations and government agencies, including the Forest Service, pulled together $150 million and tackled 57,000 acres of fuel reduction around Lake Tahoe, not far from Grizzly Flats.

23 thoughts on “What Stalled the U.S. Forest Service from Fuel Treatments Around Grizzly Flats? Capradio Article”

  1. Much of the problems were due to a lack of funding, for both fire suppression/fuels and commercial thinning. Us taxpayers are waiting for an update on how well all that extra money and personnel are being utilized. I suspect that an ‘official excuse’ is being prepared, first. (Even that takes ‘special’ analysis and process.)

  2. I am a consulting RPF in the Sierra and have many feelings about this and Chad Hanson, but I wanted to share some factual insight: the CA Spotted Owl is not listed as threatened under ESA. Federally, it is USFS – Sensitive and USDFW – Birds of Conservation Concern.

  3. Sharon appears to have left out, perhaps by accident, or perhaps not, the very first bullet point that resulted from the nine-month investigation by CapRadio and The California Newsroom,

    “• After the community meeting [in the early 2000s], the Forest Service took a decade to announce a comprehensive 15,000-acre forest management and fire mitigation plan, called the Trestle Forest Health Project. It aimed to “reduce the threat of large high intensity wildfire and threats to Grizzly Flat[s]” and other nearby landowners by removing excess brush and vegetation that fuel increasingly devastating wildfires, according to project documents.”

    Here are some other bullet points (with my emphasis added) from the CapRadio and The California Newsroom investigation that I also felt were pretty interesting:

    • The Forest Service’s data overstated Trestle Project accomplishments, claiming the agency completed work on at least 24% of the project before the Caldor Fire. Original analysis of corrected Forest Service data provided by the agency shows only 14% completion. The agency confirmed the inaccurate information had been online for more than a month; it updated its database less than a week before publication of this story.

    • The corrected data also suggests that in the decade-and-a-half leading up to the Caldor Fire, the Forest Service completed 15,000 acres of fuel reduction work within a five-mile buffer around Grizzly Flats — coincidentally, the same number of planned acres in the Trestle Project. However, the actual coverage of that work was limited to 5,800 acres because of the agency’s decades-long and highly criticized practice of counting repeat treatments on the same parcel. Furthermore, the majority of that work occurred several miles from the town’s border.

    The Forest Service failed to complete sections of the Trestle Project along the southern border of Grizzly Flats, identified as “first priority” due to the area’s susceptibility to wildfire. Instead, the agency prioritized removing trees — often far from the town’s borders and not a part of the “first priority” area — that generate revenue.

    • Despite more than five requests, the Forest Service failed to provide complete data on its national wildland fire management budget, citing a recent data transfer in which it lost some information from the past two decades. The agency also could not provide similar budget information at the regional and forest level, saying numerous changes to the budget structure and process over the last 20 years made retrieving the data especially difficult and would render any analysis “incomparable.”

    Immediately following these bullet points, the CapRadio and The California Newsroom article stated (again, with my emphasis added):

    Agency leaders say a slew of hurdles stood in the way of the project’s completion: limited funding, pushback from environmentalists and fewer opportunities to complete essential prescribed burns due to staff shortages and climate change.

    “I am committed to doing everything I possibly can to mitigate [wildfire risks] on our landscapes,” said Forest Service Chief Randy Moore in an interview.

    When asked if his agency bears any responsibility for the devastation in Grizzly Flats as a result of the stalled Trestle Project, he cited financial constraints.

    “I mean, do[es] anybody bear any responsibility for not having the budget to do the work that we need to do?”

    I think these are very important parts of the investigation here, so feel as if they warrant being highlighted and shared out in the open.

    I encourage people to read the entire investigative article here, and not base their opinions solely on the abridged version presented here, whether by Sharon or myself.

    One final point, regarding “the question was asked whether fuels funding is targeted to the communities that need it most or have more people/political clout or matching funds due to people/political clout.”

    This is an issue that I brought up many times over the past 15 years or so regarding some of the “collaborative” groups that have sprung up and also regarding larger policies or programs like CFLRP. We have a NATIONAL Forest System, but in my experience some of the funding and attention has certainly gone to “popular” collaborative groups or National Forests that for whatever reason (people/political clout/political connections/location near certain universities, etc) at the expense of the NATIONAL forest System as a whole. I personally would like to see much more transparency, equality, and equity in this regard.

    • Matthew, I think there are two questions here..
      1. Why didn’t they do the work around town? Did the money come down in the wrong color? Did the area around town need PB and not thinning?
      2. I suspect that there the reason is known and/or complex but we can’t really tell. We do know the community wanted it, and we know the Ranger knew the community wanted it. The FS defined it as priority.
      3. I don’t see what double or triple counting actually has to do with this. Counting is between the District/Forest/Region/WO/Congress. Doing work is between the community and the FS.

      • The thing I find interesting is the apparently minor role played by environmental opposition. It looks like the EIS was produced around 2015 (after assuming it would take a year), but here is the conclusion from this article: “Due to a complex web of regulatory delays, logistical challenges and resource shortages, the agency pushed back the completion date to as late as 2032 — three decades after its initial warning to Grizzly Flats.” Clearly the NEPA process had nothing to do with the decade or so after this decision, and it’s unlikely that it was the main use of time for the prior decade(s) of planning. So my question is how much time did Hanson add to all of this? At most he raised questions that needed to be answered in the EIS, which could take some time, but arguably worth the effort if they are good questions. It looks like a pretty small piece of 30 years.

  4. For better or for worse, I worked on two separate projects southeast of Grizzly Flats. Some of this looks more recent than my Year 1999-2000 projects. Dr. Crystal Kolden was on the marking crew in 1999 with me.


    I do recall some talk about the Trestle Project, before I took my permanent position elsewhere. In the past, the Placerville Ranger District was aggressive in planning and completing large timber projects.

    In the late 80s and early 90s, the RD had serious bark beetle mortality. 300 million board feet of salvage was harvested across over 100,000 acres, in those 4 years. We can only imagine what kind of fire intensity we would have seen if all those millions of dead trees were still out there, before ignition of the Caldor Fire.

    • My boss at that time on the Eldorado was the Timber Staff Officer Rex Baumback. He said something once, as I recall, that the Forest’s salvage program was larger than the Region’s green program or something like that (it was thirty years or so back). As I recall, after I left the Forest to become a low-level DC minion, CASPO came on the scene and I think that was the end of that.

      Sidenote: Rex was a star at the time for hiring women in timber. There was me, Safiya Samman, Pat the Nursery Manager, and a check scaler as I recall (we were located at the nursery, the other timber folks in the SO in Placerville). With more folks like Rex, they wouldn’t have needed a Consent Decree.

      • Thanks for sharing that about your boss. It’s heartening for those of us still in the agency mix to be reminded that one person can make a significant difference.

  5. Before I tell my side of it, I have to say that Duane was a great Ranger and I have tremendous respect for him. The silviculturalist that worked on Trestle, Dana Walsh, is one of the best in the Sierra. We don’t agree on everything, but it sure is fun to have a beer with them and I consider each a friend.

    I worked on the Trestle Project for 5 years as an environmentalist. Lumping all environmentalist into the Hanson bucket angers me to no end. Chad didn’t actually have much to do with this. I wrote several long comment letters with a colleague and did a number of field trips out there with the Forest Service. We worked really hard on this project and were adamant that each acre be planned for Rx fire and that the treatments be planned in a way to make it possible. Chad doesn’t get to know anyone and he doesn’t believe treatments of any kind should be implemented anywhere. Chad didn’t object to the EIS, I did. The supervisor and I negotiated very quickly to removed the objection. I also complained on several occasions that the non-commercial work had not been started.

    The density of spotted owl territories in the project area is one of the highest in the mountain range (18 or so over 15,000 acres) with very high reproductive output, and we supported Rx burning on every acre and thoughtful and strategic treatment to accomplish the burning. The story misses an extremely important fact, the district biologist actually made a determination in the BE that the project would lead to a trend in federal listing for CSO (something that is extremely rare to have a bio do). It wasn’t just us that were really concerned, the agency bio was also very concerned.

    One of the issues we raised over and over is most of the commercial units proposed for treatment had been logged within the past 10-15 years and were just coming back as good CSO habitat and were in a condition that easy maintenance burning was an option without thinning. When we asked the fuels person if a unit could be burned without treatment, her response was “Your grandmother could burn this.” The sales admin person made the comment, “this is all gravy” because there was no non-commercial that needed treatment in a bunch of the units, so they didn’t have to pay for it. Basically, they accomplished the commercial units that didn’t need work, and didn’t get to the acres that needed work.

    I don’t blame the Eldorado, I blame congress for not funding prescribed fire and maintenance work and Washington for forcing the agency to have a timber target, rather than an acres treated target. No doubt in my mind that place would have been saved if Trestle had been completed, and those owls would have been just fine. Now it’s all gone.

  6. Anonymous- I’m trying to put what you said together with what Christian above said..

    so right now the CSO is not listed as endangered, (?)
    but the district bio determined “trend in federal listing” what exactly is that?

    “district biologist actually made a determination in the BE that the project would lead to a trend in federal listing for CSO (something that is extremely rare to have a bio do).”
    It’s a little confusing for those of us who aren’t familiar with ESA implementation.

    Also about the timber target and acres treated target.. the FS actually has both.. as we know from the various recent discussions about the over- reporting problems. So do you think the timber target is a problem chiefly because a) the District felt more responsible for timber than fuels targets, or b) the (mechanical) fuels target was taken just as seriously but it was easier to accomplish elsewhere than around the community, or c) prescribed needs to be its own target?

    In other words, what would be your solution that you think would have worked to get the most important work prioritized?

    • With apologies to Bob, let’s decipher some acronyms. California spotted owl policy has little to do with the federal Endangered Species Act and everything to do with the federal National Forest Management Act. That’s why the district biologist prepared a Biological Evaluation (“BE”), required for NFMA-listed sensitive species, and not a Biological Assessment (“BA”), required for ESA-listed threatened or endangered species.

      The policy goal of sensitive species management is to avoid an ESA listing. That’s why an action that “trends” to federal listing is a red flag warning.

      • One could say that CASPO guidelines are more stringent than the Northern Spotted Owl protections. The 30-inch diameter limit, throughout the Sierra Nevada is one big reason why there is no ESA listing. Since the ‘serial litigators’ cannot find loopholes in the current management plans, they want a brand new set of rules, under the ESA. The CASPO guidelines have also earned the Forest Service a lot of trust in conservation circles. (They have also enraged the far-right folks, who want the State to abolish National Forests and take over ‘management’. There is a lot of anger, conspiracies and blame being directed at the Forest Service, in much of the west.)

        • In 2023, FWS will propose listing the California spotted owl; it’ll be listed by the end of that year. So says my crystal ball.

      • Thanks Andy: Much appreciated! I’m not sure how aware most people who have done a lot of planning work for the Forest Service understand how opaque most of their arguments are to most people. I’m pretty sure a lot of people can figure out USFS and ESA, but quickly become confused and/or irritated when the discussion turns to CSOs, WSOs, YEs. BAs, RDs, PBs, EWOs, EISs, and ETCs. This is a form of obfuscation that likely has a purpose, but clarity and public communication ain’t it. There is no reason that Forest Service planning can’t be conducted in Plain English w/o a magic decoder ring. In fact, I thought that was going to be an objective at one point — public planning with actual public involvement. In the interim, occasional translations are very helpful!

    • The trend to federal listing determination in a BE is part of regional forester sensitive species management under NFMA and the 1982 rule, not ESA. file:///C:/Users/bsolvesky/OneDrive%20-%20DOI/Desktop/FWS-R4-ES-2016-0121-0069_content.pdf Under the 2012 rule, the determination that there wont be a trend federal listing is made only at the plan level, when the plan is adopted (another reason the 2012 planning rule stinks). The district bio made the call, with the support of the forest bio for the Trestle Project. If such a determination is made, the action that would result in the trend to federal listing cannot be selected as is.

      I prefer not to debate the USFS target issue. Just provide more money and staff for Rx fire and give a target that is set to accomplish an order of magnitude higher Rx fire broadcast burning than is currently being completed. Hold Rangers, Forest Supervisors, and the region to it like the timber target.

      • A. I can see a big problem with that.. if burn windows are getting narrower due to climate change, concerns about health, etc. it might make Rangers more willing to take risks with… fires getting away. I don’t think we want that either. It’s a difficult question.

        We’ll see what the folks working on the report post-New Mexico fires have to say. From what I hear they have been working assiduously on this.

  7. No surprise here; the old FS is gone and the newer, less accountable FS has arrived. There are some really good folks in the forest service, hard working, dedicated and inspired to do good work. There are some great leaders in the FS, I should know, I trained a bunch of them!

    However, once centralization started working its way into the organization, the “will” and the “way” became imperiled. Whatever folks think about the efficiency of ASC (they do now pull good audits – tongue in cheek), the truth is it just is not working! Hiring is, and has been a disaster ever since the FS abandoned AVUE – centralized hiring doesn’t work well, and the RD’s (where the work is actually done) continually suffer from lack of workforce.

    As for the Spotted Owl, my experience with the Mexican Spotted Owl (MSO) in the Southwest pretty much follows the outcome identified in California. Work in Protected Activity Centers was pretty much a no-go. Timing and intensity anywhere near the MSO nests was always a challenge. But fear not; the fires from 2002- 2014, when I left R3, had incinerated over 70% of the MSO population, according to the USFWS!

    As for other ailments of the FS, there is little accountability in actually doing anything; what does one expect to change now that they are flush with money?

    I don’t delight in throwing shade at the FS, but unless they “gather the givens” and put some accountability back into Line Officers positions, all we will end up with is another portfolio of excuses to why nothing got done with all those funds!

    • Maybe Congress made a mistake in not pushing for good jobs for experienced timber employees? They pushed hard for firefighters with raises and a new job series. Personally, I think the Forest Service thought they could teach anyone to spray blue paint. Since they refuse to talk about progress, we must assume the worst.

      • While the firefighters receive all the news and potential new salary adjustments and such, you are right. No one cares about the ‘ologists and research scientists in Region 5, and that is why the talent to make things happen, outside of using a Pulaski and drip torch, is bleeding from the USFS, along with financial constraints that result in positions held by retiring or transferring employees never being filled/dollars shuffled elsewhere.

        • Indeed, people often don’t realize that ‘Ologist’ surveys have to be planned ahead for. There are specific windows of time when surveys can happen. Some existing timber folks are probably finding themselves ‘transformed’ into ‘Zone Resources’, working on adjacent RDs half of the time. Upper management wants their elevated “High 3”, before they leave the sinking ship. It’s hard to get stuff done when there’s not enough experienced personnel. Yes, some of us saw this situation coming…

  8. “When asked if his agency bears any responsibility for the devastation in Grizzly Flats as a result of the stalled Trestle Project, he (Chief Moore) cited financial constraints.”
    “The steep, dense and dry south-facing terrain made it one of the more complicated parts of the project…”
    “The agency instead prioritized commercial tree thinning, which generates revenue that offsets costs.”
    Just trying to be “economically efficient” with that limited budget. Instead of effective.

  9. I was born and raised in another country because my father was in the us military. From birth to about 16, I had heard of this great place called USA, and that I was to go their and be a benificiary of such great fortune to be a US citizen, even though the military only allowed me to have a foreign birth certificate. I think that was my first clue. I joined the MIlitary, received the GI bill, and got two college degrees.

    After the fire, we found out that the USFS obstructed fire extinguishing efforts on several fires when they first occured. This was, according to Congressman McClintock, the Caldor, Dixie, and Tamarack. He got testimony from USFS in charge that they indeed obstructed firefighter efforts, evicting them, Cal Fire, who they claimed were tresspassing on USFS property. All Cal Fire was doing was their job, and according to a Fire Chief, this was not standard practices. You fight the fire early, yet the USFS had a plan. Whatever that plan was seems napharious. I don’t the the Germans believed Hitler would do what he did, but there is a lot of hatred brewing these days, and those with power can obstruct justice as a form of retaliation for what they view as past offenses by long dead sociopaths that harmed society, or also the ecologists that believe human encroachment into the forest is equally as evil as a holocaust. Thus, fires are an easy way to depopulate the forest. After all, if those scenarios had any truth to them, and I’m just speculating, it would be overshadowed by the real culprit, regardless of who the real culprit is, would be global warming. It’s a diabolically brilliant event: forest fires where the firefighters are sent away from the fire. That cannot be denied! They were obstructed. This is a crime against humanity, but those officials pretend it’s a common negligence that occurs where nobody should be blamed.

    Us victims have been kicked to the curb. The Right of Entry is evidence of honest services fraud, a crime under 18 USC 1346, and the theft of private timber violates the takings clause of the constitution, and is a deprivation of rights under 18 USC 241. Yet, nobody is being charged and prosecuted. Billions were made. See https://www.forbes.com/feature/archie-emmerson-timber-forest-fires-logging/#11f7371c64f9

    I think what has emerged is a fact that federal funding represents buckets of cash that local officials control. I’d like to see the accounting of local officials who received kickbacks for allowing private timber companies to steal billions of dollars of timber, and all you need is somebody to drop a match, with the assistance of a government entity to have power to send firefighters home, which is exactly what happened.

    I have a saw mill. I make 1000 to 5000 dollars per tree. The state strong armed me and stole 189 of my timbers that I could have milled, while PG&E cut trees and left them for me. The constitution is clear under the takings clause. It is clearly established law! You can’t take without “just compensation.” Buth these greedy sob’s wrung out every penny excluding the victims from one thin dime. There is a special place in hell for all involved. Kicking victims and stealing from them on top of all the other problems we as humans face. The smug responses I got from officials makes you want to escape, but there is no other place. Our crappy version of freedom is the best, so they say. One gal told me, well, “we’re no constitutional experts.” The constitution is like a page and a half of writing. Officials work their whole life, and if they read the constitution, it would obstruct the evil theft they intend to perpatrate on citizens for some reason. Why do they turn on their own humanity? They’ve been given a huge blessing in life! Power to abuse and a constitutional right of immunity under the eleventh amendment. You can’t touch them! Organized crime finally got some smarts and just went into public service.


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