By Rebecca August
The U.S. Forest Service has announced plans to cut thousands of mature live and dead trees across 2.5 square miles atop Mt. Pinos, a site that is sacred to the Chumash and other Indigenous tribes. The peak, deep in the Los Padres National Forest, draws throngs of locals and tourists year-round for snow sports, hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, and other recreation. The project area includes two well-loved campgrounds and is traversed by the popular McGill Trail.
As the highest peak in Los Padres National Forest, unique combinations of sagebrush scrub, green meadows, pinyon pine woodlands, and mixed-conifer forest blanket the mountainsides and provide habitat for iconic wildlife including mountain lions, black bears and bobcats, as well as numerous rare species of small mammals and birds.
The project area borders two other expedited logging proposals, currently under review by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, for a total of 4,500 contiguous acres, or 7 square miles, targeted for logging across the mountain and neighboring ridgelines and valleys. The decision on a fourth and strikingly similar project proposed for a neighboring peak, Pine Mountain, has been delayed for months after nearly 16,000 people registered opposition.
For each project, the Forest Service intends to use controversial loopholes to bypass a detailed study of potential environmental, cultural, and recreational impacts and to examine less-damaging alternatives. The use of the loopholes also limits the public’s ability to voice concerns and eliminates the official objection process that helps resolve potential disputes and avoid litigation.
The Forest Service justifies its bare-minimum approach by claiming the project will improve “wildfire resilience” and enhance community protection, though Mt. Pinos is miles from any community. The latest science indicates that forests such as those found in the project area are naturally highly resilient to wildfire. These ecosystems have evolved over millions of years to be invigorated by fires that naturally burn at very high intensities in some areas and merely singe others. The result is diverse habitat vital for dozens of plant and animal species.
In fact, studies have found that forest thinning and other vegetation removal can decrease wildfire resilience by killing fire-resistant trees, hastening snowmelt, increasing heating and drying of the forest floor, and spreading invasive grasses and weeds that are more flammable and spread wildfire more quickly than native vegetation.
These types of projects inevitably kill many more trees than would otherwise die in a wildfire, and those that are cut are either burned in piles, which sterilizes large patches of earth due to prolonged heating, or are removed and sold rather than left in place. Countless studies have found that trees killed by fire, drought, or insects continue to provide critical habitat for countless species for decades after they die as well as recycle nutrients into the soil.
Wildfires that have burned across California in recent years vividly illustrate that extreme weather events — not “fuels” — drive the fires that cause 95% of loss of life and property. Though not as straightforward or heroic sounding as lumberjacking in the backcountry, real safety and resilience is achieved by creating defensible space directly next to homes, retrofitting and building structures with fire-safe materials, ensuring safe evacuation routes, and other such investments focused directly on communities.
The Forest Service has previously acknowledged that the Mt. Pinos project could involve a private timber sale or could be completed through special agreements with logging companies.
The Trump administration incentivized commercial timber sales on federal lands by reducing the price of harvested wood that companies pay taxpayers by half, and encouraged the Forest Service to “explore creative methods” to exploit loopholes whenever and wherever possible. The Biden administration has not yet reversed these actions.
As climate change and human ignitions increase wildfire activity in the region, the unwarranted focus on trying to alter our few remaining native ecosystems by removing vegetation has been a consistently failed strategy. Though these projects increase Forest Service budgets, fulfill policy objectives, and enrich timber lobbyists, they also reduce carbon sequestration, climate change resiliency, and biodiversity.
Our best approach to wildfire is to get out of the back country and invest our limited time and resources on preparing our most vulnerable communities for the inevitable.
The public comment period is open until May 7, and may be the only chance the public has to weigh in with concerns about the Mt. Pinos project. To submit a comment online or learn more about the project, visit LPFW.org/pinos.
• Rebecca August is the director of advocacy for Los Padres ForestWatch.