An effort to reduce wildfire risks on the Los Padres National Forest and protect nearby communities can proceed after U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick Walsh ruled in favor of the Tecuya Ridge Shaded Fuelbreak Project above Frazier Park, California. The American Forest Resource Council (AFRC), joined by the California Forestry Association (CalForests) and Associated California Loggers (ACL), intervened in court to defend the Forest Service against the lawsuit.
The Tecuya Ridge Shaded Fuelbreak Project was developed to thin forests along Tecuya Mountain within the national forest that have become unnaturally overgrown, weakened by drought and beetle attacks, and highly vulnerable to wildfire.
Agency land managers determined forest management activities were needed to restore the area back to its historical conditions and boost the forest’s resiliency to disturbances. The project also installs a strategic fuelbreak along the ridgeline to give Kern County firefighters a better opportunity to contain a fire before it could threaten people and homes. The project area was identified in both the Mt. Pinos Community Wildfire Protection Plan and the Los Padres National Forest Strategic Fuelbreak Assessment as a priority for fuel-reduction treatments.
“We applaud this ruling allowing public land managers to implement this project to improve the health of these forests, while helping to protect local communities from wildfire,” said AFRC Staff Attorney Sara Ghafouri. “As California continues to face severe and devastating wildfires, it is important for public agencies to quickly take action to mitigate these extreme risks to people, homes and our public lands.”
“Due to the insect infestations and extreme drought, hundreds of trees in the project area are dying at increasing rates and providing more fuel for future fires,” Ghafouri said. With up to 480 trees per acres, five times the historic level, the stands are unnaturally overstocked and unable to withstand attacks by bark beetles. The thinning activities will also encourage a stand structure that emphasizes large-diameter trees by selecting residual trees for vigor and larger Jeffrey pine.
To more quickly implement thinning and fuel break work, land managers utilized a “timber stand and/or wildlife habitat improvement” categorical exclusion under the National Environmental Policy Act, which allows for expedited environmental analysis since the agency determined and documented the forest management activities wouldn’t result in significant effects on the environment or vulnerable wildlife species.
Opponents of the project claimed the agency illegally relied on this categorical exclusion, failed to assess impacts to the California condor, and violated the Clinton-era 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule (“Roadless Rule”). The judge dismissed all of these claims.
In addition to meeting federal environmental regulatory requirements, the Forest Service developed measures to ensure protection of condors, including restricting management activities and human uses within 1.5 miles of any active California condor nest sites or within .5 miles of any roost sites and ceasing any project activities, if a condor is observed in the action area. In fact, the project is expected to benefit the California condor by helping to prevent catastrophic fires that eliminate roosting habitat over a larger area, and by improving foraging habitat by creating more open areas for finding and catching prey.
Land managers also determined the project was consistent with the Roadless Rule because no new road construction or re-construction is proposed for the project, and the rule explicitly allows timber management to reduce the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire effects.
Opponents of the project have already appealed the ruling. A similar project located on the Los Padres National Forest, the Cuddy Valley Project, is also pending before the Ninth Circuit. AFRC and the other forestry organizations will continue working to defend these forest health and fire mitigation projects in court.