Rep. Jared Huffman hopped onto a small plane last Thursday to get a bird’s-eye view of the area encompassed by the wilderness and forests act he introduced in July. He also got a ground tour of a fuels reduction project planned in Southern Trinity County.
Huffman, D-San Rafael, introduced the Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation, and Working Forests Act on July 27. The flight on a small plane was provided by the nonprofit EcoFlight and a volunteer pilot.
Huffman’s bill includes public lands in several counties. In one of the larger provisions, it would designate a 730,000-acre South Fork Trinity-Mad River Restoration Area in the South Fork Trinity River, Mad River, and North Fork Eel watersheds in Trinity and Humboldt counties. Within this area, the danger of unnaturally severe fires is to be reduced through a program of individual tree removal, especially within shaded fuelbreaks. Thursday’s views from the air were on the hazy side due to numerous forest fires in the North State.
Expansion and addition of wilderness in areas that are already public lands is also part of the act.
During the flight, Ryan Henson, senior policy director for the California Wilderness Coalition, pointed out noteworthy characteristics of each area.
The proposed 26,130-acre Chinquapin Wilderness in Trinity County, for example, contains the largest stand of old-growth Douglas fir in California that is outside of protected wilderness or parklands. The North Fork Eel River Proposed Wilderness Additions include natural grasslands that have been shrinking dramatically due to fire suppression. A narrow stronghold of old-growth survives in the 22,857-acre South Fork Trinity River Proposed Wilderness. The 31,011-acre Pattison Proposed Wilderness between Hayfork and Hyampom includes part of Hayfork Creek, a tributary to the South Fork Trinity River with critical habitat for salmon and steelhead.
Henson noted that because they are roadless, wilderness areas are spared a common cause of fires — people along roads. When they do catch fire, wilderness areas are open to aircraft routinely and bulldozers under emergency conditions.
Huffman also got an on-the-ground look at a project in southern Trinity worked on by the Six Rivers National Forest and Trinity County Collaborative. The project is not related to his forests act but is the kind of project proposed for the restoration area described in the bill.
Seven years ago, the Ruth fire started on a hot day after a leaf pile a man had been burning reignited in the Ruth area. The blaze burned 1,452 acres of national forestland and private property, four residences and 27 outbuildings, and forced evacuations.
It was the wrong day to be burning, for sure. But it also focused attention on the need for fuels reduction and was the impetus for development of the plan called the 1st 48 Roadside Fuelbreak Collaborative Project.
It was so named because it was the first collaborative project designed to treat green vegetation; it was developed 48 months after the Ruth fire; and proposed treatment areas were largely located along the Forest Service’s 2S48 Road.
Members of the Trinity County Collaborative made up of a diverse group of stakeholders worked with forest officials to develop the plan. Having made it through the NEPA process with an environmental assessment and no litigation, the project is anticipated to go out to bid in a couple of weeks.
Last Thursday several collaborative members toured the project along with Mad River District Ranger Dan Dill, Rep. Huffman, and others.
The project encompasses 821 acres, which includes 478 acres of treatment that will produce an estimated 5.1 million board feet of commercial logs as well as work in plantations and oak woodlands, meadow restoration and brush removal.
District Ranger Dill noted that although there was a challenge to the project, the person didn’t sue.
From the collaborative, Larry Glass of Safe Alternatives for our Forest Environment said he’d had discussions with the woman who made the challenge to prevent a lawsuit from occurring.
Dill said the fuelbreak along the road will create a spot where a fire could be stopped or slowed.
Another member of the collaborative, Joe Miller from the Trinity River Lumber mill, stressed that the fuelbreaks will need maintenance after a few years to “keep them in working order.”
Glass said after the project is completed, hopefully the site can be maintained with fire.
Huffman congratulated the group “for the activity we’re starting to see,” adding that this is what collaborative planning can accomplish.
The amount of “leave” versus “take” trees varied along the treatment area. At one site where many crowded trees were slated for removal, Dill noted, “This is one of the places where I can’t fight fire … This will go crown fire on me in almost no time at all.” The crowded stand does nothing for spotted owl, either, he said.
“You could never backfire in this right now,” Huffman said while viewing a densely packed stand.
Although prescribed fire is seen as one way to reduce fuels, Dill said that isn’t safe to do yet in the thick forest after years of fire suppression.
“We’re between five and six burn cycles missed,” he said. “So you can’t just go in and put fire back on the landscape.”
“This project has been a thought of mine ever since this fire burned,” Dill said, adding that it likely would have been a more traditional approach before the collaborative got involved.
The group continued to the top of the slope where dead trees from the Ruth fire stand — an example, Dill said, of what happens if you do nothing.