Public Lands

EPIC Submits Comments on Destructive Logging in Jackson Demonstration State Forest

Monday, March 29th, 2021
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EPIC has been working to change the way CAL FIRE manages Jackson Demonstration State Forest (JDSF). Recently, we asked you to help comment on the Mitchell Creek Timber Harvest Plan, which will negatively impact important areas of JDSF. At the same time, we’ve been hard at work drafting our own comments, which you can read in full here.

The Mitchell Creek THP is located adjacent to the Jug Handle State State Natural Reserve. A unique area of the Mendocino Coast which offers visitors the chance to hike through half a million years of ecological history. The THP area also contains habitat for ESA two listed species, the northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet. Originally, CAL FIRE had tried to hide the fact that there was marbled murrelet habitat, and it’s only because of a dogged inspection by CDFW that the public knows that it exists. 

As our comments explain, this THP has been written in a way that violates CEQA and will negatively impact the environment. For instance, after CDFW discovered that there was marbled murrelet habitat in the plan area, they requested that CAL FIRE consult with them about how to avoid damaging that habitat through timber operations. CAL FIRE agreed to do so, but the consultation won’t occur until after the THP has already been approved. That means the public won’t have a chance to comment on these protection measures or to understand the full extent of damage to marbled murrelet habitat envisioned in this THP.

And that isn’t the only time the THP punts on actually considering the environmental damage caused by timber operations. Northern spotted owl surveys won’t be fully completed until after approval and neither will a botanical survey for rare species of plants. The THP has also failed to adequately consider impacts to water quality from watercourse crossings and impacts to recreation from trail closures. Moreover, the THPs are imprecise, inconsistent and have failed to adequately analyze the environmental impacts of these projects. EPIC believes that if CAL FIRE, a public agency, wants to log our public lands they should have to comply with California’s laws. If CAL FIRE does not halt their plans to conduct these poorly considered logging operations, EPIC is prepared to use every tool in our quiver to stop them.

In order to accomplish this, we’ve partnered with local and national environmental organizations like the Mendocino Trail Stewards, Jug Handle Creek Farm & Nature Center, Mendocino Coast Audubon Society, Forests Forever Foundation, and Center for Biological Diversity. We are also working with the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians, the original stewards of the forest now called JDSF, to ensure that our advocacy is respectful of their connection to this land. Together, we are all committed to changing the way CAL FIRE manages JDSF for the better. That means focusing on wildlife conservation, carbons sequestration, and recreation, not logging. We’ll be sure to keep you updated about our fight to preserve JDSF and let you know if there are more ways you can help.


Action Alert: Help Stop Destructive Post-Fire Logging Project In Shasta-Trinity Nat’l Forest!

Monday, March 22nd, 2021
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The Shasta-Trinity National Forest has proposed extensive post-fire logging under the guise of restoration within the August Complex Wildfire area. The August Phase 1 project includes over 3,500 acres of logging around the town of Forest Glen and east of South Fork Mountain within the Wild and Scenic South Fork Trinity River corridor and its tributaries of Collins, Rattlesnake, Smoky and Prospect Creeks and the East Fork South Fork Trinity River. The stated purpose of the project is for public safety along 33 miles of roads and other infrastructure, expedited restoration, and economics. Let the Shasta-Trinity National Forest know that logging after a fire harms water quality, wildlife and wild places. Real restoration allows for natural recovery. Take action today to support an ecologically sound alternative.

The public scoping notice claims that post-fire logging increases carbon sequestration. On the contrary, post-fire logging has negative implications for climate change. When a live tree burns in a wildfire, most of the carbon is not released into the atmosphere. In fact, roughly 95% of the carbon remains in the burned snag. As they naturally decompose and decay, much of the carbon is returned to the soil where it provides nutrients to plants as they re-grow the forest. However, when trees are removed, that carbon is erased from the ecosystem and the already depleted soil is left without the nutrients it needs to replenish and regenerate. Logging, trucking, milling and manufacturing also greatly contribute to carbon emissions.

Snags in a Post-Fire Landscape.

The August Fire Phase 1 project, which runs directly to the rivers edge in some places and throughout multiple stream systems, would negatively impact the National Wild & Scenic South Fork Trinity River. The river is designated as “wild” because of its outstanding fisheries and it is legendary for its chinook salmon and steelhead trout fishing by drift boat or walk-in riverside spots. Both of these species are threatened. Logging fire-affected forests is well known to cause sedimentation, which directly harms juvenile salmon and diminishes their aquatic habitat. The South Fork Trinity River is listed as 303(d) sediment impaired under the Clean Water Act. Additional sedimentation would further harm these fish populations and water quality.

The Shasta-Trinity August Complex Phase 1 planners want to hear from the public about what alternatives to consider in the environmental assessment. Let them know you support natural recovery and an alternative limited to imminent hazard trees on main roads and infrastructure.

Close of business on March 26th is the deadline to submit comments.

Click the button below for an effortless form to submit yours today!

Take Action!


Update on Last Chance Grade: Winter 2021

Tuesday, March 9th, 2021
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The Redwood Highway, also known as Highway 101, is the main north-south arterial connection for North Coast residents and visitors alike. “Last Chance Grade” is a stretch of Highway 101 about ten miles south of Crescent City, which sits precariously above the Pacific Ocean. Built on an active landslide, the road has steadily slipped towards the Pacific Ocean. Most recently, landslides have resulted in the temporary closure of the road and significant delays as Caltrans works day and night to safely repair damages and to keep the road safe. This pattern–of regular landslides and land closures, patched together with stop-gap fixes–is far from ideal. Instead of extending this period into perpetuity, Caltrans wants to figure out a more permanent solution. 

Figuring out that permanent solution is tricky. Last Chance Grade is surrounded on either side by Redwood National and State Park land, including a magisterial stand of old-growth redwoods. Further to the east are industrial timberlands owned by Green Diamond Resource Company, although a bypass through this area would necessitate crossing back through those old-growth redwoods. Through all areas are steep slopes and an extremely erosive soil prone to sliding. 

The recent closures have caused many of you to write to EPIC to ask about the various alternatives, timelines, and our feelings on the project’s progression. 

A Review of Alternatives Currently Under Consideration

Caltrans began its analysis by examining 11 potential alternatives. Today, Caltrans is down to seven alternatives, cleverly named X, L, F, A1, A2, G1, G2. Below are longer descriptions of each. EPIC anticipates that Caltrans will further reduce the range of alternatives under consideration before the first formal opportunity for public comment, as lengthy consideration of each alternative adds time and money to the project. In deciding what alternatives to further evaluate, and ultimately which alternative to pursue, Caltrans will likely need to balance a range of considerations, most particularly: cost (of construction and of mitigating impacts to the environment), environmental impacts, the risk of future short-term and long-term failures, and challenges to construction. In our review of the existing alternatives, two stand out: X and F. Based on our current information, we hope that either of these alternatives becomes the “preferred” alternative.

Alternative X

Alternative X would be a full rebuild of 1.1 miles of highway, but unlike the other alternatives, this alternative would maintain the current alignment as much as possible. Caltrans believes that current sliding is a product of too much water in the soil, which promotes landsliding. X would rebuild the road, including digging back and armoring the slope in areas, as dewatering the route through wells and pumps to promote greater soil stability. Because this alternative would more-or-less stay in its current alignment, the ground disturbance impacts from the project are the least significant, with 10 acres of coastal shrub likely affected. The pricetag is also among the least expensive, at $300 million, and a relatively quick construction timeline at 3.5 years to complete. The downside? Caltrans is still figuring out if this alternative is technically feasible or if it would result in a significant enough improvement over the existing road to justify its construction. So far, however, Caltrans is optimistic that this will be viable. Dewatering as a form of slope stabilization has been successfully pursued in other areas of California. 

Alternative F

Alternative F is a BIG tunnel dug beneath the active landslide, a feat of engineering that Caltrans feels very confident is doable. As a tunnel, it would avoid most above-ground environmental impacts except for the tunnel mouth openings, which would result in some loss of mature/old-growth trees. Once built, this alternative would have a very low risk of future closures and the cost to maintain would be low. The downside? Cost. A large tunnel through Last Chance Grade won’t come cheap, likely topping one billion dollars. 

Alternative L

Alternative L would push the road higher up the coast-facing ridge, with the idea that by moving up in elevation, the road could sit above or atop the slide area. EPIC was initially excited about Alternative L because it appeared that it could largely stay out of mature forested areas. However, further development of this alternative has found that impacts would likely be larger than initially anticipated. Caltrans is also unsure of the potential future performance of this alternative. Both are significant knocks on this alternative and we would not be surprised or disappointed if it was removed for further study.

Alternative G2, includes Coastal scrub/grassland /spruce: 22 acres, Riparian: 1 acre, Clear cut: 3 acres, Young Redwood Forest: 28 acres, Mature Redwood Forest: 3 acres, Old Growth Redwood Forest: 3 acres

Alternatives A1, A2, G1 & G2

These four alternatives are all permutations on the same general theme. Each bypass the slide area by going east–the A alternatives making a broad S-shaped curve and G barreling up and over the coastal ridge. Once east, the road would reconnect with Highway 101 in one of two ways, either through a short tunnel (A1 and G1) or through a causeway through an old-growth redwood forest. All four alternatives share certain things in common: all would require significant earthwork and all would impact old-growth forests and natural resources, although the A alternatives generally perform better than the G alternatives in both respects.

Admittedly, these alternatives have made EPIC nervous in the past. The old-growth stand where both the tunnel and causeway would reconnect with Highway 101 are superlative and surprisingly wild, given their location near the highway, with evidence of marbled murrelet, bears, and elk. (See EPIC’s groundtruthing of A2 from 2018 here.)

Like Alternative L, EPIC would not be surprised or disappointed if these alternatives were removed for further study. The cost, both in time and money, to further study these alternatives is likely unnecessary, given that X and F appear to outperform these alternatives in nearly every metric conceivable.

Project Timeline

Caltrans anticipates that a new alternative will not open until 2039. 18 years is a long time. Avoiding impactful and controversial alternatives is one way that Caltrans can both cut time from the project and reduce the likelihood of litigation that can stop or slow a future project. By reducing the range of alternatives to remove more-impactful alternatives, Caltrans can save on timely and costly studies. (The more impactful of an alternative, the more studies are demanded to document the likely impacts and ways to mitigate these impacts.) The risk of litigation is likely related to the choice of alternatives as well, with more impactful alternatives increasing the odds that some group or some individual attempts to delay or kill the project in court. 

Thankfully, Caltrans has taken the right steps to eliminate some early impactful alternatives and to engage major stakeholders, including EPIC. Through engagement with nearby landowners, Caltrans has been able to more expeditiously receive permission to do geotechnical analysis to determine alternative feasibility. Stakeholder engagement also works to relieve tension among groups with potentially competing interests and by early consideration of issues raised by stakeholders that may have otherwise escaped attention. In this, we can see a “new” Caltrans emerging. EPIC can only imagine that if a similar stakeholder engagement had occurred for Richardson Grove or any other court-bound project, that it might have been possible to avoid a protracted fight.


ACTION ALERT: Tell CAL FIRE Not to Log 90 Year Old Forest Adjacent to Mendocino Woodlands

Monday, February 1st, 2021
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Last month, EPIC asked our members to tell CAL FIRE not to proceed with the Mitchell Creek Timber Harvest Plan (THP) or any THPs in the heavily used western portion of Jackson Demonstration State Forest. Despite hundreds of you writing in to tell them not to, CAL FIRE has decided to move forward with a nearby THP that could be even more destructive. CAL FIRE needs to know that we are watching them and that these plans are opposed. Take action today!

The Mendocino Woodlands Outdoor Center was constructed by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. It’s purpose was and remains to “enable the children of the state to better comprehend the outdoors, particularly the social and economic importance of the study, conservation, protection, and utilization of natural resources.” Today, Mendocino Woodlands has over 10,000 attendees each summer. Groups of children and adults use the space to connect with nature and learn about the importance of California’s Coastal Redwood forests.

CAL FIRE has proposed the Little North Fork Big River THP for the area immediately to the East of the Woodlands. During timber operations, “campers in the Mendocino Woodlands Outdoor Center will experience the acoustic effects of logging including falling trees, chainsaws and yarder whistles.” The timber operations will also shut down many of the trails leading out of the Woodlands into the surrounding forest. Popular trails like the “Eagle’s Roost Trail”, the “Marsh Creek Trail”, and the “Big Tree Trail” will be closed for months at a time. Originally, CAL FIRE tried to claim that their logging would have no visual or recreational impacts after the operations were completed. But, when it was pointed out to them by the Department of Parks and Recreations that this was impossible, CAL FIRE amended their position. Now, CAL FIRE claims that “[n]ewly constructed roads and evidence of other timber harvesting activities will be directly adjacent or overlap trails within the the planned harvest area… but are not expected to create a cumulative visual impact.”

The THP area was last harvested 90 years ago and since then has developed into a healthy, second growth forest. CAL FIRE claims that this is a young forest that needs thinning but research has shown that second growth coastal redwood forests develop better without human intervention. The reason is that even single-tree selection logging carries with it a host of associated impacts that negate any benefit conferred by thinning. For example, the THP calls for 3.5 miles of new roads. These new roads will contribute to sedimentation of the Little North Fork Big River and disrupt wildlife. The THP will also disturb 484 acres of high quality northern spotted owl nesting and roosting habitat. Because the area has not been harvested in 90 years, the THP area is one of the best places for Northern Spotted Owls left in JDSF. CAL FIRE claims they are conducting this Timber Harvest Plan to promote the development of late seral forest habitat, but is it worth it to harm northern spotted owls when they could just let nature regenerate on its own?

CAL FIRE just moved this THP into “second review” which means the deadline to submit public comments on this project is fast approaching. Let CAL FIRE know that this 90 year old second-growth forest that is beloved by campers and hikers should be allowed to naturally regenerate without human intervention!

Take Action


Take Action For Richardson Grove!

Monday, December 14th, 2020
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We need your support at the Board of Supervisors weekly Zoom meeting on the morning of Tuesday, December 15th. Staff have provided the Board with an alternative statement expressing community opposition to the Richardson Grove Project and highlighting that the county takes no formal position on the project. This is BIG!

Please let the Supervisors know that you support the alternative statement!

The meeting starts at 9am and this item will likely be heard in the morning session. (There is no time certain.)

How to Zoom public comment: When the Board of Supervisors announce the agenda item that you wish to comment on, call the conference line and turn off your TV or live stream. Please call 669-900-9128, enter Meeting ID 931 8995 1592 and press star (*) 9 on your phone, this will raise your hand. You’ll continue to hear the Board meeting on the call.

We need you to let them know that you love Richardson Grove State Park and that you don’t support highway widening that threatens old-growth redwoods. Share why you feel passionately about the grove–perhaps you have a favorite memory of the park, or that when you hit the park after a long road trip you feel like you are home again–why you are opposed to the project, and politely ask that they remove support from the project from the document. Positive comments are much more effective than negative or angry responses to the Supervisors. 

How to watch: You may access the live stream of the meeting by using the following link: Watch live: http://humboldt.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?publish_id=2

Agenda: https://humboldt.legistar.com/View.ashx?M=A&ID=736535&GUID=DD19A2F4-6FF5-49E6-BA94-C955867B50A5

Can’t make it? It is important that Supervisor Fennell and Supervisor Bass hear from their constituents. Please write them at [email protected] and [email protected]


ACTION ALERT: Tell CAL FIRE Not To Log The Western Jackson Demonstration State Forest

Monday, December 14th, 2020
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Jackson State Demonstration Forest. Photo by the USFS Pacific Southwest Research Station

CAL FIRE intends to conduct extensive logging in the Western Jackson Demonstration State Forest. Let them know that California’s state lands are better used by wildlife, recreational users, and for carbon sequestration.

Take Action Today

The Jackson Demonstration State Forest (JDSF) was created by the state of California in 1949.  Before that, the land was owned by the Caspar Lumber Company.  More than 90 years ago, Caspar harvested most of the old growth trees and left behind a forest that was a shadow of its former self. Nearly all the old growth redwoods, Douglas fir, hemlock, and their companion ecosystems were gone. California purchased the land with the intention of using it as a place to demonstrate new timber harvesting techniques. While logging has continued under the state’s ownership, and 75% of the forest has seen one or more harvest incursions since then, some of the forest has remained untouched for the last 90 years. In that time, something miraculous has begun to happen: 10,000 acres of a new, second-growth forest has emerged which is beginning to take on some of the qualities of an old-growth redwood forest.  

Speckled Black Salamander in the Jackson State Demonstration Forest. Photo by Ken-ichi Ueda.

Because most private timberlands are operated as timber plantations where the timber is harvested every 40 years, second-growth forests like JDSF are exceedingly rare. Because they are so rare, second-growth forests provide critical habitat for a wide variety of threatened species.  Northern spotted owls depend on older forests for unique habitat and forests like JDSF are just beginning to take on the characteristics necessary for northern spotted owls to thrive.  The JDSF also contains some of the last remaining coho salmon in California and any logging operation will threaten the spawning of these crucial salmonids. With most of California’s timberlands unsuitable for these species due to extensive logging, CAL FIRE would do better to leave the second-growth forest within JDSF alone.   

Another reason CAL FIRE should refrain from logging JDSF is that it provides ample recreation opportunities for Californians. JDSF is located near the cities of Mendocino and Fort Bragg.  Because of this, the forest has developed into a place cherished by thousands of recreational users. Campers have been spending their summers at the Mendocino Woodlands camp since it was constructed in the 1930s. Now, CAL FIRE has plans to log more than four and a half square miles of the oldest remaining groves, all in the most popular and recreated Western segment of the forest, where campers will be forced to endure the sounds of chainsaws felling nearby trees. CAL FIRE’s timber harvest plans also call for the closure of a large number of trails within JDSF which will severely limit recreational opportunities in the coming years.  

Perhaps most shocking of all, CAL FIRE has decided to participate in climate denial. Scientists have known for decades that climate change is manmade. However, with language one would expect from the Trump Administration, the greenhouse gas emissions section of the timber harvest plans begin with the following equivocation: “exactly how and to what extent human activity plays a role in global climate change appears to be unknown.” CAL FIRE needs to be held accountable for this climate disinformation contained within its timber harvest plans.  We believe that instead of denying that humans cause climate change, CAL FIRE should be  demonstrating how a forest can sequester carbon most effectively.

The upcoming “Mitchell Creek” timber harvest plan is the first of many timber harvest plans slated for the JDSF. Let CAL FIRE know that instead of “demonstrating” how to damage a second-growth forest, they should begin the long work of restoring the landscape for wildlife, recreation, and carbon sequestration. Perhaps one day our descendants will be grateful that we preserved JDSF and helped create one of California’s first new, old-growth forests. 

For more information, visit www.MendocinoTrailStewards.org


11th-Hour Attacks On NEPA

Thursday, November 19th, 2020
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Camp on the Sheenjek River, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo Credit: Alexis Bonogofsky for USFWS

We are witnessing the last gasps of the Trump administration–the frantic rush to get bad projects and harmful new regulations approved before their time ends on January 20. The Trump administration is rushing to issue oil leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Also in Alaska, the Trump administration appears ready to issue a permit for the controversial “Pebble Mine.” Today gives us another: new rules by the Forest Service for implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). As most of EPIC’s public lands program focuses on our National Forests, and as NEPA is our most important tool to advocate for better forest management, this is deeply concerning to us. 

The good news is that their ineptitude has forced them to jettison some things that were originally proposed in a draft rule from this summer. The proposed rules would have conflicted with a new, separate rule issued by the Council on Environmental Quality, showing the internal failures of the administration to coordinate their actions.

The bad news is that the Forest Service is still moving forward with other proposed changes, including the creation of six new “categorical exclusions” and the expansion of two others that are already on the books. Categorical exclusions are worrying because they allow the Forest Service to bypass normal environmental impact analysis to fast-track projects. Projects up to 4.4 square miles (2,800 acres), from things like commercial logging to new road construction, are exempted from project-specific environmental impact analysis and public engagement. Historically, categorical exclusions were limited to activities that would pose an extremely small risk to the environment–repainting a Forest Service building, for example–but have been gradually expanded as a way to avoid NEPA. While we have seen expansion of categorical exclusions in the past, the new rules stand out because of the massive new size and scope of this end-around.

The rules also adopt a new trick to avoid public participation in land management decisions: a “decision of NEPA adequacy,” whereby the Forest Service would rely on previous NEPA analysis in lieu of new review and public engagement. (That’s right: the Forest Service could use a timber sale from the past in the general vicinity of a project to approve a new timber sale without consulting the public.)

11th-hour attacks on our bedrock environmental law are concerning and cannot stand. Cumulatively, the rules silence local community involvement and shortcut the science-based management of public lands.


The Bounty of Tanoaks

Thursday, November 19th, 2020
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For many Americans, winter is associated with ham, eggnog, and pecan pie, but for the Indigenous Peoples of California, winter has traditionally meant acorns.  Since time immemorial, Indigenous Peoples of what we now call California have consumed this nutritious nut.  But don’t try to eat acorns right off the ground.  The tannins within raw acorns make them toxic if consumed raw.  Thousands of years ago, Indigenous women developed an ingenious system for safely preparing acorns which involves pounding them into a meal and then leaching out the tannins with water.  The process produces a semi-sweet soup, mush or bread depending on how it’s prepared.

In our corner of California, the tanoak tree (Notholithocarpus densiflorus) provides much of this bounty.  Tanoak acorns are uniquely suited to meeting people’s needs.  Tanoak acorns have a thicker shell than most other species which makes them more resistant to fungi and insects.  A properly stored tanoak acorn can last for years which makes them the perfect food for lean winter months.  In fact, tanoak acorns were the basis of the pre-colonization Northwest California economy.  Oral histories and firsthand accounts tell us that the Karuk regularly traded tanoak acorns for white deer skins, obsidian, dentalia shells, and sugar pine nuts with neighboring tribes.  Indigenous Peoples of California also use the tanoak acorn for medicinal purposes.  For example, the tannins in the acorn have cough suppressant properties and among the Kashaya Pomo the acorns are used as a natural cough drop.  

A mature tanoak can produce as much as 200 pounds of acorns per year with estimates for the most productive old growth trees ranging as high as 1000 pounds. Indigenous Californians used fire to manipulate vegetation in order to maximize acorn production.  Many old-growth tanoak groves today are the result of meticulous planning by Indigenous Californians hundreds of years ago.  Tanoak acorns are also a staple for animals native to Northwest California.  Many tribes have long chosen to halt the acorn harvest towards the end of November, preferring to leave enough acorns to support the other species with whom they share the land.  Modern researchers have studied how tanoak acorns provide an irreplaceable food source to many species and that without them our forest ecosystems would be severely threatened.  

As Europeans colonized Northwest California, they made a great effort to disrupt Indigenous food practices.  Most directly, European Americans used violence to drive Indigenous Californians away from the best places to harvest acorns.  But a more subtle kind of disruption also occurred.  To European Americans, acorns were only good for hog fodder. And tanoak trees were more valuable after being cut down and used to tan leather.  As the timber industry developed, the value of tanoak in the eyes of the European Americans degraded even further and it became commonly referred to as a “trash tree”.  Government foresters and private landowners regularly employed (and continue to employ) herbicide in order to prevent these trees from taking up space that could be used by more economically valuable softwoods. Despite these challenges, tanoak remains a culturally significant tree to Indigenous Californians.  Actively resisting assimilation, tribal members have continued to harvest acorns even when threatened with violence by European Americans for doing so.  Many tribes continue to celebrate the harvesting of acorns with an annual acorn feast. 

Tanoak tree killed by Sudden Oak Death (Phytophthora ramorum) in southwest Oregon.

Today, a new invasive threat endangers tanoak.  The disease Sudden Oak Death (SOD) was first identified in the Bay Area in 1994.  Researches noticed that some tanoaks were developing cankers which bled profusely before eventually killing the tree.  SOD is caused by the pathogen Phytopthora ramorum which researchers believe originated in Asia.  The disease obstructs a tree’s xylem cells and reduces their water supply until eventually killing its host.   Since its arrival in California, it is estimated that SOD has killed more than 38 million tanoak trees and wreaked havoc on other oak species as well.  

California has convened an Oak Mortality Taskforce to work on solutions to the threat.  Their website www.suddenoakdeath.org/ contains information about how to spot SOD and how to make sure you don’t accidentally spread it.  Hopefully, we can stop the spread of this disease and finally listen to Indigenous Californians about the value of this giving tree.  


California’s Wild Turkeys

Thursday, November 19th, 2020
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Written by EPIC Intern, Clary Greacen Montagne

Brightly colored “Toms” or male turkeys are recognizable by their tail fans and facial wattles. Photo: October Greenfield

The wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, is an instantly-recognizable game bird closely associated with the Thanksgiving holiday here in the United States. This species has inhabited North America for over 11 million years, since the end of the Pleistocene era, or Ice Age. Wild turkeys have held a cultural role for peoples across the continent far before the first Thanksgiving celebration. Turkeys were revered in ancient Aztec civilizations as the manifestation of the trickster god Tezcatlipoca, and their feathers were used for spiritual practices and to adorn jewelry and clothing. The Navajo people may have been among the first people to domesticate wild turkeys, and they remained an important food source across North America throughout history. 

Prior to European colonization of North America, more than ten million wild turkeys roamed the continent, but by the turn of the twentieth century, wild turkeys were at the brink of extinction. Four hundred years of westward expansion and the overhunting, deforestation, and resource extraction that came with it left the population decimated. Today, due to conservation and reintroduction efforts, wild turkeys populations have rebounded to around seven million, and they inhabit about 18% of the state of California. While this successful reintroduction has often been deemed a conservation success story, there is debate over their place in California’s ecosystems. 

National symbol: bald eagle or wild turkey?
In 1776, Benjamin Franklin proposed the wild turkey as a national symbol, considering the proud, adaptable turkey to be more respectable and noble than the bald eagle, which often steals food or feasts on carrion. In the end, the bald eagle won out. Photo: Chris Stevenson

There are six distinct subspecies of Meleagris gallopovo; the eastern wild turkey, Florida wild turkey, Gould’s wild turkey, Merriam’s wild turkey, Rio Grande turkey, and Mexican wild turkey. The Rio Grande subspecies is the most widespread and is not native to California. Bones from a species of wild turkey once native to California, Meleagris californica, have been found in the La Brea tar pits in southern California, but this species has been extinct for thousands of years. From the 1950s through the end of the twentieth century, the California Fish and Game Commission (now the California Department of Fish and Wildlife,) imported thousands of non-native Rio Grande wild turkeys to California, releasing them in over 200 locations throughout the state. The turkeys quickly adapted and can now be found living everywhere from oak savannas to the Sacramento suburbs. 

With well-established populations, wild turkeys remain a highly valued upland game bird, but they may be having a negative impact upon California ecosystems. The California State Department of Parks and Recreation in 2007 identified wild turkeys as having the following potential negative impacts: competition with native ground-dwelling bird species, contribution to the spread of the sudden oak death disease, and consumption of endangered reptiles and amphibians. Wild turkeys are generalist feeders, meaning they eat a variety of plants, seeds, and small animals, creating competition for a variety of native species. A short-term study conducted in 2001 at a reserve in Sonoma County showed that turkeys directly caused an increase in soil disturbance and a decrease in terrestrial herbivores, decomposers, and invertebrates fundamental to the ecosystem. More research and long-term studies of wild turkeys in California are needed to fully understand their effects upon the environment, but interest and funding are both scarce. 

For now, population management falls to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which encourages hunting of wild turkeys where safe and legal. Currently, wild turkey populations are not increasing at a rate to elicit major environmental concerns, but overpopulation could become an issue in the future.


Wolf Coalition Launches Challenge To Nationwide Wolf Delisting

Wednesday, November 11th, 2020
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On Friday, Nov. 6, EPIC and a coalition of Western wolf advocates filed a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, launching a challenge of the agency’s decision to prematurely strip wolves of federal protections in the contiguous 48 states, in violation of the Endangered Species Act. This notice starts a 60-day clock, after which the groups will file a lawsuit in federal court.

“California’s wolves are just starting to return home, having been driven out of the state by 1924,” said Tom Wheeler, Executive Director at the Environmental Protection Information Center. “A politically-driven delisting puts wolf recovery in California at jeopardy by stripping protections at the moment they are needed most.”

The most recent data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its state partners show an estimated 4,400 wolves inhabit the western Great Lakes states, but only 108 wolves in Washington state, 158 in Oregon, and a scant 15 in California. Nevada, Utah, and Colorado have had a few wolf sightings over the past three years, but wolves remain functionally extirpated in these states. These numbers lay the groundwork for a legal challenge planned by a coalition of Western conservation groups.

“Wolves are a keystone species whose presence on landscapes regulates animal populations and improves ecosystem health – something the Service has acknowledged for at least 44 years,” said Kelly Nokes, an attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “Allowing people to kill wolves in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana has already stunted recovery in those states. Applying this same death sentence to wolves throughout the contiguous U.S., would nationalize these negative effects, with potentially catastrophic ripple effects on ecosystems wherever wolves are found today.”

In delisting wolves, the Service ignores the science showing they are not recovered in the West. The Service concluded that because in its belief there are sufficient wolves in the Great Lakes states, it does not matter that wolves in the West are not yet recovered. The ESA demands more, including restoring the species in the ample suitable habitats afforded by the wild public lands throughout the West. Indeed, wolves are listed as endangered under state laws in Washington and California, and wolves only occupy a small portion of available, suitable habitat in Oregon. Likewise, wolves also remain absent across vast swaths of their historical, wild, public lands habitat in the West, including in Colorado and the southern Rockies.


The 2020 Election: Environmental Implications

Tuesday, November 10th, 2020
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Although votes are still being counted, it appears that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be our next President and Vice-President. It is likely that they will serve over a divided government, with the Republican Party likely to retain control of the Senate and the Democratic Party will to maintain a majority in the House of Representatives. (Note, it is possible that the Democratic Party could win both run-off elections in Georgia, effectively giving them control of the Senate too.) This swing of power has major implications for federal environmental law and application. 

Young Sequoia grows post-fire. Photo by Matt Holly, National Park Service.

Rolling Back the Trump Era:

To be blunt: the past four years of the Trump Administration have been bad for the environment, and particularly bad for our climate crisis. But it could have been much, much worse. First, to federal environmental law, Trump failed to land a major legislative rollback of federal environmental law. The first two years of the Presidency, a lack of unified vision within the Republican Party and record turnover of political appointees stalled legislative movement and after the 2018 midterms, Democratic control of the House thwarted major legislative changes. Instead, the Trump administration had to rely on rulemaking and executive orders to change the interpretation of existing environmental law. Thankfully, much of this can be undone in the first years of a Biden administration. Executive orders can be undone most immediately and rulemaking can be reversed, although this will take more effort and time to get rules through following the appropriate process (which shouldn’t be avoided, lest we get these rules invalidated by a rushed error). 

The Trump era was also marked by a lack of enforcement of environmental laws. More vigorous enforcement can be expected by a new administration, particularly once political appointees are filed for the various agencies. Enforcement is also moderated by the budgets approved by Congress. This is an unknown moving forward.

The most lasting damage was done to the judiciary. This will be the hardest to fix. Obama notably was able to push through very few federal judges in his last years, thanks to obstructionism in the Senate. This gave Trump more seats with which to fill. Republican control of the Senate, the loss of the filibuster for judicial appointments, and a prioritization of appointing judicial nominees by Senator Majority Leader McConnell means that Trump has radically reshaped the judiciary. (For example, Trump was able to appoint ten judges to the purportedly “liberal” Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in four years; Obama was able to appoint seven judges in eight years.) With a court more ideologically opposed to federal environmental law, we might see the lingering effects of the Trump administration for decades to come.

We also lost four years of action on climate change. The Trump administration fairly well neutered government action to minimize greenhouse gas emissions and expanded federal drilling for the past four years. The total effect of all this was offset in part by unforced changes in the economy, such as the reduction in coal production, that resulted in relative greenhouse gas emission reductions in 2019. (Strangely enough, Trump’s actions may have helped the environment, although not as intended, as France refused to purchase liquid natural gas from the United States because Trump reversed the Obama-era rule limiting methane emissions. Hoisted by his own petard!) Still, May 2020 set the high-water mark for carbon concentrations, at 417 parts per million. Scientists warn that global carbon dioxide saturation levels in the atmosphere above 400 ppm makes it far more difficult to arrest global warming below 2 degrees celsius. There is a lingering effect to this inaction as well. Cars, for example, that were not required to have as robust of fuel economy standards under Trump will continue to be on the road for many years. The carbon dioxide that was emitted but could have been avoided will hang around the atmosphere for 20-1,000 years.

Federal Legislation Affecting the North Coast:

The North Coast has its eyes on the PUBLIC Lands Act, the large Wilderness bill proposed by Representative Jared Huffman and co-sponsored in the Senate by Senator Harris. The bill successfully passed out of the House twice, where it has stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. It is unclear whether it will continue to flounder in the Senate or whether Vice President Harris will be able to exercise greater pressure to get the bill through. We at EPIC are optimistic at its chances. 

EPIC has also been watching dueling federal fire response bills, one from Senator Harris (S. 2882) and the other from Senator Feinstein (S. 4431). In our view, Sen. Harris’ bill, which considers community wildfire protection holistically and provides communities with funding to implement safety measures tailored to their communities is worlds better than Sen. Feinstein’s, which is focused almost exclusively on logging as a solution.


Lassen Pack Has Two Litters of Pups

Tuesday, November 10th, 2020
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Two females in the Lassen Pack had litters this spring, bringing the total of pups to a minimum of nine. LAS01F, the original matriarch of the family birthed at least five and LAS09F, her two-year old daughter had up to four. The new alpha male, who joined the pack last year, sired both litters. The origin of the black male is yet unknown. While multiple litters are uncommon, they most often happen when a genetically unrelated adult wolf joins a new pack.

LAS09 waking up from being captured and collared in June 2020. Photo by CA Department of Fish and Wildlife.

There is now only one collared wolf in California, LAS09 the two-year-old breeding female of the pack. The yearling male LAS13M, collared this summer, began to disperse from the pack in August. He spent a few weeks about 20 miles from his pack then traveled to Modoc County in late September. In early October he entered into Oregon.

This is the fourth litter of pups for LAS01F. Her first litter of four was in 2017, with five in 2018 and four in 2019. Currently the pack consists of three adults, three yearlings and nine pups, bringing the Lassen pack to fifteen.

 


Will Justice Barrett Kill the Modern Administrative State?

Monday, October 26th, 2020
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Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

While concerns about the access to reproductive care and the fate of the Affordable Care Act dominate the national conversation about the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) is concerned: What are her views on Chevron deference? If you have no idea what that is or what it means, don’t worry, you are not alone.

Environmentalism relies on the modern administrative state—the alphabet soup of agencies that interpret and apply statutes passed by Congress. That administrative state, the fundamental basis of modern government, is under threat by attempts to chip away at the power of the administrative state to regulate. At the core of these attacks by conservative judicial activists are attempts to overturn the longstanding principle of Chevron deference (named after the 1984 Supreme Court case, Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc.).

Here’s what Chevron deference is about: The world is complicated. Too complicated for Congress to pass extremely detailed legislation. Instead, Congress often leaves the details to the experts: the agencies created and charged by Congress to regulate certain areas. Whether it is determining the safe levels for an airborne pollutant or determining what qualifies as a “distinct population segment” when thinking about endangered species, Congress often leaves these critical judgments to the experts within each agency. Thus, the EPA figures out what are safe levels for pollutants and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers questions of endangered species. Chevron deference recognizes that when Congress isn’t clear, the agencies are best equipped to interpret the statute, and provided that their interpretations are reasonable, they are entitled to “deference,” meaning that a court cannot supplant its own interpretation over the agency’s.

It may come as a surprise that EPIC would rise to be a champion of Chevron deference—after all, EPIC currently has seven ongoing lawsuits that challenge the decisions of federal agencies when interpreting federal law, such as our lawsuit challenging new regulations to implement the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). But the same legal doctrine that helps to insulate government agencies from criticism from the environmental community also protects the agencies from attack by extractive industries and conservative business interests.

The modern conservative judicial movement has put a bullseye on Chevron deference precisely because it enables a modern regulatory state. Despite it being long standing legal precedent-—and therefore somewhat immune to challenge—Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Gorsuch, Alito, Thomas and Kavanaugh have all questioned Chevron deference to a degree, although there clearly have not been five votes to overturn the doctrine…yet. Judge Barrett, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative and proud member of the Federalist Society may be that fifth vote to axe the doctrine or her presence could provide greater breathing room for its gutting. Judge Barrett has indicated, in academic writing, that she does not believe that precedent should bind judges when they believe that something clearly violates the Constitution—and the Chevron deference doctrine has been attacked by the conservative legal movement as unconstitutional, as it (theoretically) cedes the power to interpret the law from the Judicial to the Executive Branch. However, in her time on the 7th Circuit, Judge Barrett did invoke Chevron deference to defend a Trump Administration rule limiting immigration. Or it may be that the court continues its current trajectory of “distinguishing” individual cases from Chevron, thereby minimizing its effect. In this future, the court can chip away at Chevron until the exceptions swallow the rule and the doctrine has been de facto overturned.

Other essential foundations of the modern administrative state may also be on the chopping block. The Supreme Court might revisit and constrain the Legislative branch by more narrowly interpreting the Commerce Clause, the part of the Constitution that provides the legal grounds for nearly all federal environmental laws. The Supreme Court could revive Lochner-era theories about the “freedom to contract,” to limit regulations. The Court could also attempt to resuscitate the “nondelegation doctrine,” something considered dead after the New Deal, but has been revived by the Trump-era packing of the judiciary. Or the Court could throw up new roadblocks to litigants who attempt to enforce environmental laws, such as heightened requirements for public interest groups to show “standing,” as the teeth of federal regulations often are found in groups like EPIC willing to actually enforce the law (a power that the federal government often abdicates).

Our planet can’t afford Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court.

 

*This was originally published in the Times-Standard on Oct. 17, 2020. 


Into the Haunted Forest: Ghost Pipe

Monday, October 26th, 2020
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Written by Clary Greacen Montagne

Cluster of Monotropa uniflora. Photo by Courtney Celley, USFWS.

Wandering through a dark and shady forest, perhaps foraging for mushrooms, you might happen upon a small cluster of ghostly pale flowers growing through the leaf litter. This curious and elusive plant is the Monotropa uniflora, also known as Ghost Pipe, Indian Pipe, or Corpse Plant. Formerly considered to be part of the Heath family (Ericaceae), recent evidence suggests they are worthy of their own classification, Monotropaceae. The single, bell-shaped flowers of Ghost Pipe grow on curved stems, Monotropa meaning “one turn.”  Each stem and flower resemble a small upside down pipe, hence the name “Ghost Pipe.” These plants can be found throughout most of the U.S., growing in the rich humus of mature forests at low to moderate elevations, and can also be found in some parts of Asia. While widespread in range, they are not commonly found. Ghost Pipe requires a very specific growing process and because of this, is practically impossible to cultivate or propagate. 

This mycotrophic wildflower grows at the base of trees where roots meet the mycelium network, getting all their nutrition through a symbiotic relationship with fungi. Ghost Pipe owes its waxy white appearance to a lack of chlorophyll, the green pigment that allows most plants to photosynthesize. Instead of photosynthesis, Ghost Pipe gets its necessary nutrients through a mycorrhizal association with a fungus. In this unique relationship, a fungus invades the roots of the plant, allowing the plant to get its energy from the photosynthesis of the fungus’ host tree. With no light dependency, Ghost Pipe is able to thrive in the dark, spooky environment of the forest floor.

Photo by Helen Lowe Metzman.

Spending most of their life underground, these plants flower in the small window between June and September, when they poke up through the leaf litter alone or in small stands. Ghost Pipe grows between four and eight inches tall, and is pale white in color with small black or pink specks, and can also have brightly colored pink stems. The plants have small, scale-like leaves and five parted white flowers, with a single flower per stem. Ghost Pipe is pollinated by bees, who hang on to its flower upside down. Upon first flowering and emerging from the ground, the flower hangs downward, but as the fruit capsule matures, the flower points upwards in line with the stem. Once the fruit has ripened, seeds are released through small slits and dispersed by wind. The Ghost Pipe will flower for about a week, before shriveling and turning black, hence its alternate name, “Corpse Plant.”

Ghost Pipe has been used by indigenous peoples of North America as a medicinal plant, primarily for its pain-relieving properties. A Cherokee legend about Ghost Pipe tells of a time long ago, when selfishness first entered the world, and people began quarreling. First, they quarreled with their own families and tribal members, and then with other tribes. The chiefs of several tribes met together to try to solve the disputes, and smoked a peace pipe together, while continuing to quarrel with each other for seven days and seven nights. In punishment for smoking the peace pipe before actually making peace, the Great Spirit turned the chiefs into grey flowers and made them grow where relatives and friends had quarreled.

Ghost Pipe is used today in Western Herbal Medicine as a nervine, or plant beneficial to the nervous system, and may provide benefits for epilepsy, psychological conditions, and physical pain. Unfortunately, the popularity of this plant in Western Herbal Medicine has caused it to be overharvested. Ghost Pipe is extremely delicate, so much so that when handled, it wilts very quickly and turns black. It’s best to admire this ghostly plant without attempting to handle or harvest it. 

 


An Ode to an Indigenous Justice Movement During Indigenous People’s Week

Wednesday, October 14th, 2020
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Written by Josefina Barrantes

Happy Indigenous People’s Week! A great activity you can do that helps you become more aware of your local indigenous community is finding out who’s land you’re on! If you text your city and state or zip code to (907)312-5085 the hotline will tell you whose land you occupy. Most of our team occupies Wiyot land here in Humboldt.

This week, we are to remember the lives taken and the relatives (natural resources) that are plundered to this day. It is also important to remember the people who have fought and continue to fight to end violence and the exploitation of nature. Because of this, we wanted to make an ode to highlight an incredibly important Indigenous justice movement in our country. 

Photo by Rafael Samanez, O’odham Anti Border Collective.

An Indigenous Land Protection Ceremony in O’odham this Monday (on Indigenous People’s Day) was violently interfered with when Border Patrol and Arizona State Police attacked them with tear gas and rubber bullets. The ceremony was held to pray for sacred sites and graves that were demolished with the creation of the border wall. Of the land and water protectors holding this ceremony, 8 were arrested.

 Although they were all released, they are asking that reparations are made to those who were injured at the incident. In addition to this, they are asking for the discontinuation of border wall construction at Quitobaquito Springs and through all of the O’odham lands. The construction of the Mexican-American border wall harms them in many ways, one being that it is depleting the resources in Quitobaquito and throughout O’odham lands. Quitobaquito is a sacred water spring in Hia-Ced O’odham territory that is having wells drilled into its aquifers by the constructurres of the wall so they can steal the water and mix concrete for the border wall. 

This, in turn, has been negatively affecting the already endangered Desert Pupfish and Sonyta Mud Turtle that reside in these waters. The people of O’odham are doing incredible work by fighting for the protection of their sacred land and water. We stand with them as they continue to be fighting on the frontlines everyday.

Donations for this movement are accepted through:

Cash app handle: $DefendOodhamJewed

PayPal: paypal.me/DefendOodhamJewed


Contrasting Federal Legislation Shows How (and How Not) to Deal with Fire

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2020
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Red Salmon Complex, July 27. Photo courtesy of Inciweb.

California federal legislators have offered dueling bills to respond to the recent large fires that have gripped the West. In one corner stands Senator Dianne Feinstein and her bill S. 4431; in the other are Sen. Kalama Harris and the Northcoast’s own Rep. Huffman, who have brought forward S. 2882 and its House companion, H.R. 5091. To be clear who we are rooting for: EPIC has joined our friends at Earthjustice, Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Parks Conservation Association, Sierra Club, The League of Conservation Voters, The Wilderness Society, and Western Environmental Law Center in opposing Senate Bill 4431. EPIC also endorses Sen. Harris’ and Rep. Huffman’s bills. 

The two sets of legislation represent two competing schools of thought on addressing wildfires. Sen. Feinstein’s bill would weaken environmental laws to encourage more backcountry “fuels” treatments under the theory that by removing trees and other vegetation, we can influence fire behavior. The problem with Sen. Feinstein’s bill is that backcountry vegetation projects are enormously costly, require repeat treatments (because trees grow back), are ecologically impactful, and are not terribly effective at keeping people safe. Most large and high-intensity fires are climate and weather driven events, where a hotter, drier, and longer fire season (thanks climate change) along with high winds work together to create “megafires.” Sen. Feinstein’s bill, while perhaps a psychological salve as it feels like we are doing something, actually would do little to keep communities safe because the bill cannot fundamentally uncouple this relationship. (But it should come as no surprise that while the environmental community has overwhelmingly opposed Sen. Feinstein’s legislation, it finds many supporters in the timber industry, who are only too happy to take “fuels” off the government’s hands for cheap.) 

By contrast, the Sen. Harris/Rep. Huffman legislation (S. 2882/H.R. 5091) would provide funding, through grants to local and tribal governments, for community wildfire preparation, the development of critical infrastructure, and the hardening of structures and the creation of defensible space. These actions are the most effective measures to keep people and property safe from wildlands fire. It allows for a diversity of potential responses, as the program would pass money along to local governments to tailor projects to fit the needs of their communities.


Fire Facts and Fictions

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2020
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Media coverage of fires is–how do we put it nicely?–problematic. Hyperbolic headlines help to fuel fire misinformation. It is somewhat forgivable. Fire ecology is a daunting subject. It escapes easy generalizations (and the following is also perhaps painted with too broad of brushstrokes). 

Fires are Dynamic and Many Things Influence Fire Behavior

There have been plenty of frustrating headlines that attribute one thing for this year’s fire behavior. Predictably, the main culprit changes by the story. In some, fuel accumulation from a lack of logging is to blame. In others, the history of colonization that has removed traditional cultural burning is at fault. The truth is that there are many, many variables that influence fire behavior. We humans have better control over some (like whether homes are to be constructed out of fire-resistant materials than others (like the weather). Be careful of oversimplification!

Wildfire is a More Accurate Term than Forest Fire

Did you know that more than half of all of the acreage that burned so far this summer in California was not in forested ecosystems? Grasslands, chaparral and other ecosystem types make up the majority of lands burned. Even in a “National Forest,” many times the lands that burned are not forested, such as the fire that burned through grasslands of the Mendocino National Forest, helping to keep these prairies free from conifer encroachment. 

California Forests are Born to Burn

Fire is as natural as rain for most of California’s forests, and as such, trees and ecosystems have adapted to this challenge. Some trees attempt to withstand the flames by developing thick, fire-resilient bark; others, like Lodgepole pines, have serotinous cones that require fire to open and release their seeds. Even the coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), endemic to California’s dank, moist temperate rainforests of the North Coast, are adapted to fire. Walk through an old-growth redwood forest and you’ll notice the evidence: burn scars, bearing witness to historic burns either deliberately set by humans or naturally caused. That the redwoods of Big Basin Redwoods State Park survived the fire is no surprise. They have likely been through worse. 

And while forests are born to burn, in many circumstances, the forests help to temper fire conditions. The shade provided by a forest helps to cool an area and keep in moisture and retards the development of more flammable brush in the undergrowth. The trees themselves, while part fuel are also part water. That’s why even in a “megafire,” most of the time, fires tend to burn at lower severity, meaning that the trees will survive but much of the undergrowth will be removed. 

But death too is a natural event, part of the cycle of life: death, decomposition, and renewal. In their death, fire-killed trees give life to others. Fire-killed trees are an important habitat component–just ask a black-backed woodpecker, a burnt forest specialist–and provide important structure to regrowing young forests. 

While forests are born to burn, we have settled the landscape in ways that mean that normal burn behavior can put lives and structures at risk. 

Mismanagement of Forests Affects Fire Risk

Understanding the historic and ongoing mismanagement of California’s forests is necessary to understand, in part, what is happening. Although California’s forests are born to burn, for many decades (and still to this day), we have aggressively attempted to put out every fire as soon as possible. As a result, some forests may have conditions that make high-severity fire more likely to occur: ladder fuels, dense thickets, and a pile up of undecomposed “fuel” on the forest floor. Unfortunately, the mismanagement continues. CALFIRE, and to a lesser extent the U.S. Forest Service, still prioritizes extinguishing fires instead of letting them (safely) burn. Aggressive efforts to put out fires, even when they pose little to no risk to humans, while maybe a balm to calm the nerves of a frightened public, often produces greater environmental impacts than doing nothing and furthers our fire deficit.

Similarly, we have deliberately managed forests for timber production, producing plantations more similar to midwest corn than a forest: a monoculture of densely packed trees with a uniform and unbroken canopy. If a fire is to reach a plantation, the odds are that it will burn hotter and faster than a more naturally occurring adjacent “reference” stand.

“Mega-Fires” are Weather Driven Events

While there are many factors that influence the severity of a wildfire, weather, beyond anything else, is the prime driver of large and intense fires. As a general rule, with low humidity and high winds, fire tends to burn hot and fast. The recent fires are examples of this behavior. High-winds and dry conditions whipped up the fires and caused their fast expansion. We have also seen the limits that fuels reduction efforts, such as prescribed burning and forest thinning, when fire conditions are right. Climate change also influences fire behavior both by creating drier, hotter forests and through producing more extreme weather. 

Preparing for the Next Fire: What Strategies Should We Prioritize?

To briefly reiterate: fire is a natural occurrence and healthy for California forests, although it can be undesirable because of impacts to humans and property; the hottest, fastest moving and most destructive (to humans) fires are primarily weather-driven events (and humans can’t control the weather); historic mismanagement of forests and climate change have further contributed to fire effects. So what is there to do? (Especially in a world of limited funding.)

Land use plans should discourage or prohibit new development in the wildland urban interface. Just like how it is a bad idea to build housing in a floodplain in an area that receives frequent floods or hurricanes, it is likewise a bad idea to build residences and other structures in high-fire areas divorced from larger settlements. (In some areas likely to be inundated from climate change or susceptible to flooding, “managed retreat” is already being pursued.) 

Where development has occurred, we need to “harden” structures. Most houses burn because of wind-blown embers, not from a moving fire. Choice of ignition resistant building materials, such as composite or metal roofing, screening of vents to prevent embers from entering the house, and an adequate water supply and infrastructure to reach all areas of your property, are the most effective way to guarantee that a structure will survive a fire. 

After investing in structure hardening, spatially-limited “fuels reduction” can be useful to influence fire behavior. But as a warning: it is expensive, impactful, requires repeat treatment, and does not wholly remove the possibility of fire. (As an example, around 21% of the Hennessey Fire burned just in 2018.) That’s why fuels reduction work should be prioritized only around communities.

What Should We Not Do? Landscape Level “Fuels Management”

It is inherently costly, people and machines in the woods, chopping and grinding vegetation. It also requires repeat treatment because, obviously, plants regrow–and depending on the circumstance, fuel reduction without repeat treatments can make more aggressive fuel conditions. These “treatments” often result in significant impacts, including the taking of endangered species (who are among the supposed beneficiaries of this work). 

The desire to “do something” about fire often results in bad decisions, wasted money, and degraded ecosystems. What doesn’t work is landscape-level “fuel management” to reduce vegetation to influence fire behavior. Fuel management does have a role, though. Around communities, targeted projects can influence fire intensity, allowing more time for defense or evacuation. Outside of limited work around communities, fuel reduction cannot be broadly pursued without significant cost to taxpayers and our ecosystems. 

 


Forging Fire Strategies

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2020
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The WKRP partnership reviews and discusses the effects from prescribed fire in the field.

The time to adapt and live with wildfire is here. There are many communities across the west working toward that goal. The climate crisis is thrusting change upon urban and rural towns alike. As the flames and smoke become more familiar, our relationship with fire must progress. Here in the Pacific Northwest corner of California, strategic fire planning is underway. 

EPIC participates in both the Smith River Collaborative and the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership (WKRP). The goals of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, in part, guide both of these efforts. Completed in 2014, the National Strategy represents a push to work collaboratively among all stakeholders and across all landscapes, using best science, to make meaningful progress towards three goals: resilient landscapes; fire adapted communities; and safe and effective wildfire response.

Based on 20 years of collaborative work between diverse partners, WKRP formed in 2013. The partnership is a watershed and fire management effort between EPIC, the Karuk Tribe, Six Rivers National Forest, the Mid-Klamath and Salmon River Watershed Council, community fire-safe councils, local stakeholders, and other agency and non-governmental organizations. The mission is to establish and maintain resilient ecosystems, communities, and economies guided by cultural and contemporary knowledge through a truly collaborative process that effectuates the revitalization of continual human relationships with our dynamic landscape. 

The WKRP held workshops multiple times a year for over four years to complete the Plan for Restoring Fire Adapted Landscapes.

Working together towards shared values and zones of agreement the partnership created a strategic fire plan for a 1.2 million acre area that includes the entire Salmon River watershed, a portion of the Middle Klamath River sub-basin between Weitchpec and Seiad Valley, and parts of the Siskiyou, Marble Mountain, and Trinity Alps wilderness areas. It spans two national forests—the Klamath and Six Rivers—and includes the communities of Weitchpec, Orleans, Somes Bar, Forks of Salmon, Cecilville, Sawyers Bar, Happy Camp, Seiad Valley, and much of the Karuk Tribe’s ancestral territory. 

Historically, the Western Klamath Mountains experienced fire every 3 to 10 years. That included cultural burning by indigenous tribes practiced since time immemorial. Northern California is fortunate that fire is still a vital part of the living culture here today, as shown by the Karuk, Yurok and Hoopa Valley Tribes and the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation. It is spreading more widely as understanding and cooperation grows. Traditional burning practices are helping to guide the strategies of our future. 

Fire rejuvenates and helps to balance forest ecosystems. The ecological benefits are immeasurable. The partnership aims to mitigate the current fire deficit by implementing their Plan for Restoring Fire Adapted Landscapes. Multiple values were spatially modeled over 1.2 million acres, resulting in a map highlighting prioritized areas needed for treatment. The most critical places identified were around towns, neighborhoods and along strategic ridge tops and roads. 

Implementation of the first demonstration project just began this year. The Somes Bar Integrated Fire Management project consists of nearly 50 miles of shaded fuel breaks and hand lines and 5,500 acres of manual, mechanical and prescribed fire treatments, concentrated around small communities. This and all future efforts will not only accelerate the development of fire-adapted communities and resilient forests they will: integrate Traditional Ecological Knowledge; integrate food security, food sovereignty, and forest food and fiber resources; build local restoration stewardship and work force capacity; increase cultural and community vitality; include maintenance to uphold effectiveness; advocate fisheries restoration; maintain and restore viable native plant and animal populations; build capacity for practitioner based research and monitoring programs; and include inter-generational education programs and activities.

The Western Klamath Restoration Partnership looks at restoring black oak in forest stands.

In addition, to put principle into practice, WKRP helps to host and organize the Klamath River TREX prescribed fire training and learning exchange. TREX trains people to implement prescribed burning, building their credentials and accomplishing restorative fire on hundreds of acres annually. The partnership coordinates the Klamath Fire Symposium, bringing together land and fire managers, researchers, scientists and interested stakeholders. The group is also working with fire planners to develop PODs, which outline resources to help prioritize and delineate fire suppression strategies. Restoring fire on a large landscape requires many levels of understanding and cooperation. 

Wildfires are sparking a national shift in law, policy and opinion. Social change in coping with the climate and biodiversity crisis is beginning to ignite. With the mission to revitalize our human relationship with fire and our dynamic landscape, WKRP is leading the path to increase the pace and scale of place based restoration. Recognized as a national model, the partnership is helping to facilitate changes in fire and land management for communities across the west living with fire.

 


Stop the Salvage Logging of Post-Fire Forests

Monday, September 21st, 2020
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Post-fire logged area

Written by Clary Greacen Montagne

Get ready, because a massive timber-industry push will begin shortly to “recover” the timber “lost” from fire-killed trees. Post-fire logging, euphemistically referred to as “salvage logging,” is the practice of cutting and removing both live and dead or damaged trees following a large-scale natural disturbance to a forest like wildfire, floods, or insect kills. Post-fire logging is sold as a way to recover at least some of the economic value of timber the trees can be made into. But, while private timber companies do profit from the cheap raw materials logging provides, the costs to the public and to our forests are immense. Not only is it an economic ripoff, post-fire logging is also an ecologically disastrous practice that does not protect us or forests. As we face the effects of a changing climate, including more intense wildfire across the west, it is essential that we invest our limited resources into programs that will both increase wildfire resilience and protect habitat.

Timber interests seek to justify post-fire logging with the belief that standing dead trees simply “go to waste.” In fact, post-fire forests are some of the rarest and most important habitats in western forests. Wildfire has played a role in the forests of the west for hundreds of millions of years, and dead trees are an essential component of a healthy forest ecosystem. Standing damaged and dead trees, or snags, form important habitat for a variety of species, such as the black-backed woodpecker and the spotted owl. Trees that survive wildfire are critical seed sources. If these survivors are immediately logged, there is no opportunity for the forest to recover on its own. Dead treefall boosts soil fertility by bringing less-weathered soil up to the surface, where fallen logs and root mounds then provide places for trees and other plants to sprout. By removing dead and damaged trees and compacting soils, post-fire logging prevents the natural recovery process of a forest ecosystem. 

New plant life blossoming in a post-fire landscape.

Beyond the apparent environmental consequences, post-fire logging is a huge waste of taxpayer money for the benefit of private timber companies. One recent example, the 2016 Westside Salvage Project in the Klamath National Forest, shows how post-fire logging projects often end up costing much more in restoration than they could ever provide in timber revenues. In its planning documents, the Forest Service projected that the project would sell for ten million dollars. But, after timber corporations paid only $475,000 to log 13,000 acres in the heart of the Klamath-Siskiyou bioregion, the KNF’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) listed restoration costs at $27,487,000. While the KNF made a $475,000 profit, taxpayers were responsible for restoration costs, with twenty-seven and a half million dollars needed in order to replant 8,000 acres of forest, clean up logging slash, and implement fuels reduction treatments on another 27,000 acres. Without further funding, natural recovery has been impeded over thousands of acres, loss of soil stability means greater potential for landslides, and the area is at increased risk of severe fire. Not only did the Westside Project create conditions for worse wildfire, it also didn’t pay for its own fuels reduction costs, the entire premise of the project. Meanwhile, taxpayers are on the hook for millions of dollars to address the environmental impacts of the project. Read more about the Westside Rip-Off at our previous blog post here

Western forest ecosystems depend on natural fire in myriad ways. Post-fire logging often undoes the benefits of fire while creating conditions for more intense and destructive fires. With the complete disruption of a post-fire ecosystem’s natural recovery process, it’s the opposite of what we need to do most: maintain the integrity of forests while defending human lives and “hardening” structures, as well as implement treatments such as intentional, prescribed fire near at-risk communities. Plantation forestry used with the “restoration” of post-fire logging clearcuts is fundamentally incompatible with healthy forests. By disrupting the natural cycle of recovery, it creates highly flammable conditions for decades to come. As fire season in the west grows longer, drier, hotter, and more destructive, we must realize that when striving to manage a fire-adapted landscape, post-fire logging makes very little sense. 

In the face of a changing climate, we must do everything we can to protect and restore our forests and return to a natural cycle of wildfire. This means changing the way we think about fire and forest management. EPIC encourages the incorporation of the traditional ecological knowledge of the region’s indigenous peoples alongside a new scientific approach to wildfire management, including prescribed burning and selective thinning. We know that a dramatic increase in forest protection is essential in addressing climate change, and we cannot allow destructive practices like salvage logging to proceed unchallenged. We must value forests for their ecological role more than we value them as a site for resource extraction and economic revenue. 


Wolf Update: California’s Lassen Pack Grows

Monday, August 10th, 2020
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Female gray wolf after being fitted with a satellite tracking collar in Lassen County, June 2020. Photo by CDFW

The Lassen Pack has had a fourth consecutive litter of pups. California’s only known gray wolf family welcomes a minimum of eight new pups this year. Genetic testing revealed there were at least four males and two females. 

A new breeding male replaces OR-7’s son, who has not been documented since the spring of last year. The newcomer is a black wolf who was first seen with the pack last summer. His origin is currently unknown, however he is unrelated to any other known California wolves. 

Two of the Lassen Pack members have been fitted with radio collars: LAS01F, the packs alpha female; and a yearling male, LAS03M. In September of 2019 a female pup was captured and collared, however the collar did not remain functional. There are no other wolves in the state being tracked with GPS. 

The pack now consists of a minimum of six adults and yearlings, which brings the pack to at least fourteen wolves. Not including this year, the past three litters combined totaled thirteen pups, though not all survived. While it could be assumed that at least some of these animals may be dispersing throughout the state, there is no known documentation as to their whereabouts.

California gray wolves are currently protected under both the state and federal Endangered Species Act. However, this administration has proposed to end federal protections and remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list. A decision by the US Fish and Wildlife Service is expected this year and will be met with great opposition should the decision be unfavorable to wolves.