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Forest Service proposes to thin out woods near Frazier Park

Heavily wooded areas near Kern County's southern border would be substantially thinned out under plans by the U.S. Forest Service to reduce the threat of wildfire to communities in the Frazier Park area.

Agency officials say the projects, tentatively scheduled to begin next year, are needed to address risks posed by drought, bark beetle infestation and years of fire suppression activity that have left parts of Mount Pinos, Cuddy Valley and Tecuya Ridge overpopulated by dead, dying and at-risk trees.

At a combined 2,800 acres ranging in elevation from 3,000 to 6,000 feet, the projects are located in the Los Padres National Forest and are considered among Southern California's largest tree-cutting efforts in decades. Some of the trees could be sold to logging interests, or they could go to a power plant that burns wood waste for energy. Other downed materials, including sagebrush and other scrub, would be left in place or burned in piles on the forest floor.

Environmentalists contend the activity would unnecessarily disrupt the area's endangered and threatened species, including the California condor and the California spotted owl. They argue that creating a defensible space near homes makes more sense, and are calling for a far more detailed environmental review of the projects than the Forest Service had in mind.

"It's mostly hogwash that they're trying to actually protect communities by doing logging in a roadless area," said Justin Augustine, an attorney with the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity who works on forest conservation matters. Depending on how the government proceeds, he estimated there is a "decent chance" that the organization will sue to halt the projects, together with Los Padres Forest Watch, which has also been critical of the plans.

After the Forest Service proposed the projects in mid-March, 627 public comments were filed in response, 99 percent of which either opposed the plans or asked for a detailed environmental review, according to the Goleta-based forest watch group.

One of the proposals, called the Tecuya Ridge Shaded Fuelbreak Project, extends along Tecuya Mountain, just north of Lake of the Woods, Pinon Pine Estates and Pine Mountain Club. Its western boundary is near San Emigdio Canyon; its eastern edge is near Lebec.

The other, called the Cuddy Valley Forest Health/Fuels Reduction Project, lies within Cuddy Valley and stretches from Lake of the Woods to the lower slopes of Mount Pinos. Forest Service officials say both proposals are aimed at reducing mixed conifer and pinyon-juniper populations to their historical densities of about 90 trees per acre, or about one-fifth their existing levels. No black oaks would be removed unless they posed a hazard.

Forest spokesman Andrew Madsen downplayed the risk to condors, saying that although the birds have been known to roost in the areas, most are collared and are not believed to be active there.

Promoting logging is not a priority for the agency, he added, saying it's unclear whether any wood from the projects would have commercial value. He noted the Forest Service has done similar kinds of fuel-reduction activities in the Santa Barbara and Big Sur areas.

"I don't know that there's anything all that novel about these" projects, Madsen said. 

John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf.

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