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USFS eyes large fire prevention project in the Eldorado

By From page A1 | April 26, 2013

Cutting through federal acronyms and abbreviations related to the national forest could require a big, well oiled chainsaw. However, despite complex jargon and bureaucratic language, officials with the Eldorado National Forest are simply hoping to reduce the danger of wildfire and improve the health of 20,000 acres of forest near Grizzly Flat.

Known as the Trestle Forest Health Project, the U.S. Forest Service is currently incorporating public comments to its formal “Proposed Action” which is part of its larger Eldorado National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan (LRMP) and the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment (SNFPA). The project is described in detail in a collection of documents sent out with a Scoping Letter by Forest Supervisor Kathy Hardy and provided to the Mountain Democrat by El Dorado County District 2 Supervisor Ray Nutting. Trestle Forest lands are located in the county’s District 2, east of Grizzly Flat and surrounding Leoni Meadows, west of Caldor and north of Big Mountain.

Access to the project is via Capps Crossing Road from Grizzly Flat or North South Road from Mormon Emigrant Trail. And the overall site includes elevations ranging from 3,200 feet on the west side to 5,800 feet on the east side of the project, according to the Forest Service map and project summary.

At this point, the Forest Service makes clear that the proposal is simply that and is documented in its Proposed Action and Purpose and Need for Action. Public “scoping” sessions are part of the process required under NEPA, the National Environmental Protection Act, similar to California’s Environmental Quality Act or CEQA.

The introduction to the proposal notes that the project would “implement activities to reduce fuel loads and fire hazards, improve forest health, improve wildlife habitat, watershed condition, and restore more sustainable forest conditions in the (project area).” The long-term work is projected to last from 2014 until 2020 and in part would include commercial thinning, road reconstruction, restoration of watershed and closure of some roads and trails.

“Modification of forest vegetation” is the management plan’s language describing a route toward its desired outcomes for the project. That includes thinning or reducing tree density and sustaining old forest conditions. In turn, those activities should lead to enhanced wildlife habitat and reduced wildfire risk. Long-term “scenic sustainability” and increased recreational opportunities are desired results along with enhancing riparian conservation areas.

A final element in the plan aims to “maximize revenue derived from commercial products to perform essential and costly biomass removal, and to support the retention of local industrial infrastructure.” That is, create enough income to offset some or all of  the project’s costs as well as future costs.

Tim Howard, timber management officer and interdisciplinary team leader for the Trestle Project, discussed the project and U.S. Forest Service processes over the phone.

“Scoping is over, and the Draft Environmental Impact Statement should be available to the public sometime in November,” Howard explained. “The final EIS will probably be done in June 2014. The actual, multi-year implementation will begin after that.”

Depending upon what turns up with respect to public comments and other agency input, he said he expected little more than “slight changes” from the Draft to the Final EIS. So far, public comments have been “mostly supportive” of the proposed project. There have been some concerns as well, “but so far things are going smoothly,” he noted.

One of the first elements of the project is to send out requests for bids on Stewardship Contracts for two  sales to commercial timber harvesters, Howard said. Those are planned to be awarded and work begun in 2014 and 2015. Each is likely to be a four-year contract, the first in 2014 involves approximately 2,000 acres for about 10 million board feet. The 2015 contract is for 2,400 acres with 14 million board feet. The anticipated revenue to the U.S. Forest Service is between $1.5 million and $2 million, he calculated.

All the anticipated revenue will “stay on the grounds and be used for the biomass fuel reduction work,” he said. That part of the project will also be done by private contractors and is the basis for the project’s goal of helping “to support the retention of local industrial infrastructure.”

Typically, timber contracts are awarded to combinations of large contractors such as Sierra Pacific Industries and local smaller contractors, Howard said.

Closing forest roads has been controversial on the Eldorado National Forest in the past two years. The decommissioning and closing of roads within the Trestle Forest Health Project area as noted above is primarily a rehabilitative effort, Howard explained. The area is popular for both off-highway vehicle and motorcycle riders, but he said many of those roads are officially “designated” for use by the public. The roads and trails referenced in the Scoping Letter as subject to closure are those that have been made by vehicles traversing the forest and creating “undesignated” routes.

As described in the project’s “Purpose and Need for Action,” the U.S. Forest Service seeks to “provide a maintainable level of forest access while closing unneeded roads and motorized trails to enhance wildlife habitat and reduce wildlife harassment.” Reducing erosion and fire hazard are part of the same effort, Howard said.

The Scoping Letter documents specify 19 separate “proposed actions” for the project ranging from “prescribed understory burning on approximately 15,287 acres” to rehabilitating “several dispersed camping areas and associated spur roads adjacent to” creeks and the Steely Fork Cosumnes River.

As the project’s lead agency, Howard said the U.S. Forest Service has assembled a professional team with a broad range of specialties including archeology, hydrology, biology and forestry. The team also consults with interest groups such as Fire Safe councils, county government agencies, Trout Unlimited, the Wild Turkey Foundation, local Native American tribes and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“The Eldorado is at the forefront of forest health activities,” he concluded.

Contact Chris Daley at 530-344-5063 or [email protected]. Follow @CDaleyMtDemo.

Chris Daley

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