The California State Assembly’s Natural Resources Committee passed a resolution April 7 criticizing the changes recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service to the 2001 Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment (SNFPA) – a framework for forest fire prevention in the Sierra Nevada National Forest.
The framework was introduced in 2001 as a strategy to save the spotted owl, whose habitat in the canopy of old growth forests is subject to fire risk. However, the project became an investigation into long-term environmental protection in the forest.
The primary, but sometimes contrary, goals of the framework became the preservation of old growth forests – areas with trees several hundred years old – and the reduction of fire risk, which often involves removing those very trees.
“The amendment was worked out over the last decade to prevent fire hazard and protect old growth,” said Janice Rocco, spokeswoman for Assemblymember Hannah-Beth Jackson.
Jackson chairs the Natural Resources Committee, which has criticized the Forest Service for changes that would cut down trees up to 30 inches in diameter in order to thin unnaturally and dangerously dense thickets.
In response, the service formed a review team to examine grazing, recreation, fire prevention and the removal of “fire fuel” – the smaller, densely packed trees and foliage that allow destructive fires to spread. The team said the SNFPA direction provided confusing regulations that compromise fire hazard prevention in many cases.
Since the implementation of the SNFPA in 2001, the USDA Forest Service has received numerous appeals from the public about the amendment’s policy on fuel reduction. It has also taken into account field observations made by the forest rangers responsible for fuel removal.
“The direction in the 2001 framework was complex and had much overlap, which caused problems in implementing its goals,” Dave Reider, a USDA Forest Service spokesman, said. “We have been implementing the 2001 decision for two years. That won’t stop. However, the Forest Service would like to adjust the original framework.”
The Natural Resources Committee passed the resolution with the goal of encouraging the federal government to continue to enforce the original framework and not the revised proposal suggested by the Forest Service.
“The [federal government] is currently trying to halt the implementation of the framework, but Jackson is having the California State Legislature go on record to say that this affects the state and something should be done,” Rocco said.
Part of the Natural Resources Committee’s concern about the proposed increase in tree diameter limits is that it serves the interests of commercial logging companies that the forest service has contracted in the past to thin dangerously dense areas.
When these companies pay the forest service for the trees they remove, “there’s a benefit there – the ability to treat more acres with the same amount of money,” Reider said. “However, the most important factor for each site is always the flexibility to achieve the desired condition – a controlled condition.”