Forest in the North Fork Mokelumne River Canyon
Foothill Conservancy and the Amador-Calaveras Consensus Group
have spent a great deal of time over the past year on a U.S. Forest Service proposal known as the Panther Fuels Reduction and Forest Health Project. Located in Amador County’s North Fork Mokelumne River watershed between Panther Creek Road and Ellis Road south of Highway 88, the project covers 5,400 acres and overlaps with the western edge of the 2004 Power Fire footprint. Finding consensus on the project has proved challenging, as it encompasses issues including rare wildlife protection, herbicide application, social and economic questions, and fire-safety concerns.
Project activities will take place on about 3,350 acres of the Amador Ranger District. Within these acres are some of the forest’s most-productive, old-growth forest habitat and successful breeding pairs of California spotted owls. The project area, which spans several North Fork Mokelumne tributary streams, also includes designated critical habitat for endangered Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs, cultural resources, and active grazing lands.
Options for creating and managing fuel breaks
Three thousand of the acres proposed for active management are currently slated as strategic fuel treatment areas (fuel breaks). They follow the major ridgelines and road systems in the project. In the fuel breaks, the Forest Service proposes to clear all trees smaller than 10 inches in diameter at breast height within 1,000 feet of the main ridgelines, 300 feet of roads, and 200 feet of private property.
Typically, the Forest Service clears brush and shrubs in fuel breaks by applying herbicide several times over a two-to-five-year period. The goal is to create an area of shorter grasses or bear clover where firefighters can slow or control a wildland fire that would otherwise burn up into and through the trees. Those areas are also easier to manage with prescribed fire in the longer run.
Since we were concerned about the amount of herbicide normally required to achieve this forest “type conversion,” Reuben Childress of our staff worked with ACCG members, including the Forest Service, to significantly reduce the herbicide use proposed for the project. In addition, the Forest Service will evaluate a no-herbicide alternative. There is already a great deal of herbicide use in the river canyon, primarily on Sierra Pacific Industries industrial timberlands.
The Forest Service tends to gravitate to herbicides in our area since herbicide application is generally cheaper than clearing shrubs and brush by hand or machine. But increasing the amount of hand work in a project can not only be more environmentally sound, it provides more local jobs, income, and revenue.
Spotted owl populations a key issue
Native populations of California spotted owl have been declining in the Eldorado National Forest for quite some time. Within the Panther project, the owls’ “protected activity centers” have some of the best old-growth and dense forest stand conditions that owls prefer, leading to high breeding success.
The Forest Service is legally required to analyze a project alternative that will comply with recently released interim spotted owl conservation recommendations.
Analysis will be subject to further comment
The Forest Service’s environmental analysis for the project compares the agency’s own proposal, a no-herbicide alternative, and a California Spotted owl “Interim Recommendations” alternative, to leaving the forest area as-is, the so-called “no-action alternative.” After the Environmental Assessment was completed, members of the public, our organization and other ACCG members had 30 days to comment on the environmental impacts and mitigations in the document.
Since the Amador-Calaveras Consensus Group couldn’t agree on a comment letter for the project, Foothill Conservancy and several other interested parties submitted individual comment letters. We are encouraging the district to implement actions that will better ensure owl protections\, provide necessary fuel breaks, and better balance social, economic, and environmental goals that all local interests can support.
For more information on the Panther Fuels project, or to talk about any of the related resource issues, e-mail our Watershed Conservation Associate, Reuben Childress, or call him at 209-223-2508.