Star fire’s aftermath sparks debate
Environmentalists are clashing over how to handle cleanup and restoration at Duncan Canyon, a roadless area in Tahoe National Forest burned by the Star fire last summer.
The U.S. Forest Service has collected more than 2,000 public comments on its plans for the area, 10 miles west of Lake Tahoe.
The alternatives vary from leaving burned and dead old-growth trees where they are, to recommending the harvest of dead trees by helicopter and using the profits to pay for reforestation work.
Environmental groups are saying the old-growth trees do not present a fire danger and should not to be touched. Money for cleanup and restoration work should come from Congress not timber sales, they say.
The Forest Service and its supporters say the dead trees need to be pulled out to prevent more fuel build up and speed the creation of a new forest; one that’s better managed, more fire resistant and reduces the chance of another intense blaze.
The deadline for public comment on the restoration plan is Monday. Most comment has been sent via form-letter or e-mail. The majority of it is from environmental groups who want the old, dead trees left in place to preserve spotted owl habitat, said Steve Eubanks, forest supervisor at Tahoe National Forest, home to Duncan Canyon.
Eubanks said owl habitat shouldn’t determine what type of work is done because the work would not significantly affect owl habitat. The rest of the comment is from nearby residents who want a proactive approach that would leave the area more fire-safe, said Karen Jones, Forest Service project manager.
The Star fire, a 17,700-acre blaze that started Aug. 25, was human-caused. Officials don’t know exactly where it sparked, but it first burned Eldorado National Forest on the south side of the Middle Fork of the American River.
It jumped the river and ran up Red Star Ridge into Duncan Canyon, an 8,700-acre area where the fire raged and charred about 4,300 acres. It was a fuel-driven and so hot that it burned four miles up the ridge in one day. It took three weeks to contain the blaze, which firefighters accomplished by starting a controlled burn around the canyon. The fire cost $28 million to fight.
“There’s a contention we’re ignoring good science but we’re really not,” said Eubanks said. “It’s not just good science (we use), it’s experience and common sense.”
Opponents argue that wilderness areas need to be left alone. The attention of foresters needs to be focused on land where the forest meets a community.
Even if the old-growth trees are dead, they don’t pose a significant fire hazard, said Keith Hammond, communication director for California Wilderness Coalition, which represents 3,000 state residents and almost 200 conservation-oriented groups and businesses.
“There are dozens of towns in the Sierra that need fuel reduction right close to town,” Hammond said. “Instead the Forest Service is trying to pull millions of board feet from the wilderness. That’s a backward policy.
“There’s no science we’ve found that says old growth logs are fire hazards. It’s the small brush and under trees that present the real risk.”
In all, the Tahoe National Forest is proposing work be done on 7,500 acres. At Duncan Canyon, an area Sen. Barbara Boxer wants designated as wilderness, the highest form of environmental protection, the agency says it would use helicopters to do logging in an effort to go light on the land.
Timber sales from logging have the potential to produce revenues of $29 million. About 6 percent of the trees at issue are old-growth, Jones.
Trees with any signs of life would not be touched. But she said, the agency would likely recommend logging more trees because many are bound to die in the next three to five years.
Money raised would go to replanting, creating fire breaks in the forest and installing erosion controls in the American River watershed, which provides drinking water for 33,000 people in western Placer County.
“Our interest is that the Forest Service move speedily,” said Mal Toy, planning administration at Placer County Water Agency. “We don’t have a high interest in removing trees and getting value off it, but in their mix is the solution we’d like to see, planting to stabilize slopes and decrease runoff. Some of the ground is crystallized, the burn was so heavy.”
Eubanks said more cleanup and restoration work will get done if they sell the dead trees.
“Our motivation overall is restoration and protection of forest values in the long term,” Eubanks said. “In the area we’re dealing with, almost everything is dead. When you look at the forest it’s all black. If we don’t do anything that recovery period will be twice as long.”
Boxer has taken a position against harvesting old-growth trees in Duncan Canyon.
“I realize that it will not be easy to develop a plan that balances the competing needs and satisfies all interests,” Boxer wrote in a letter to Eubanks. Boxer supports Alternative E, as do many environmental groups.
“(It) would provide the greatest protection for the wilderness values of the roadless area and it recognizes the benefit of leaving biomass on the forest floor to ensure nutrient recycling and maintenance of habitat.”
The biomass Boxer mentions would be as deep as someone’s waist if the canyon is left untouched, Jones said.
As the deadline approaches, public comment is pouring in at a rate of more than 250 messages a day.
“We are working very closely with environmental groups to provide all the information up front,” Jones said. “We want to hear from them now.”
While the fire was burning, agency staff took environmental groups on tours of the area.
“Some environmental groups are willing to work with us,” Jones said. “They are exploring different alternatives and presenting them back to us.”
By this fall, Jones will have created a final list of alternatives and by mid-October Eubanks is expected to decide which alternative to pursue. A 60-day appeals process will follow as will a lawsuit.
“I receive appeals on almost every decision,” Eubanks said. “I would expect there to be a high probability of litigation.”
If the process is stalled too long, the wood won’t be marketable.
“All we’re talking about is which dead trees do we remove, it’s not a matter of removing live trees,” said David Bichel, president of the California Forestry Association. “Within two years of death, they lose nearly all their value to insects, disease and rot.”
The Star fire started in the Eldorado, where it affected about 6,000 acres, and spread into the Tahoe National Forest where it burned about 10,000.
The Tahoe forest contains about 800,000 acres, the Eldorado about 600,000.
Eldorado is a lot closer to actually getting cleanup work done than the Tahoe, partly because old-growth trees are not at issue and sections of the land are privately owned.
“We have less controversy,” said Patricia Ferrell, Forest service project manager. “On our side of the fire, it was a combination of mature and younger forests.”
Deadline for public comment on Eldorado cleanup work was due April 22. Ferrell said the agency received 12 letters. Eldorado is dealing with one appeal, but it won’t necessarily turn into a lawsuit, Ferrell said.
If the agency executes the plan it prefers, timber sales would produce about $4 million. About half the money will be used for reforestation, fuels treatment, road improvement and administration costs.
— Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or at email@example.com
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