A disagreement about how to defend southern Kern County mountains against wildfire may spread westward to Mount Pinos.
The U.S. Forest Service, still in court over its efforts to thin out the woods near Frazier Park, has proposed chopping down trees less than two feet wide across 2½ square miles near the highest peak in the Los Padres National Forest, two miles southeast of Pine Mountain Club.
A public comment period on the project opened Wednesday and extends for almost another month. It's unclear how soon tree removal could begin.
Santa Barbara-based Los Padres ForestWatch is urging people to write in and register their opposition to the proposal. It says the area is an important Chumash site popular with outdoor enthusiasts and home to sensitive plants and animals.
Noting trees removed from the mountain may end up sold for profit as timber, it accuses the Forest Service of exploiting a loophole to bypass a fuller environmental review of the project.
ForestWatch said in a news release Wednesday sensitive species such as the Mt. Pinos larkspur and flax-like monardella "may be negatively affected by the use of heavy logging and mastication equipment."
"As we race to address climate change, the need to protect our last remaining wild forests is more important than ever," ForestWatch Director of Advocacy Rebecca August said in the release. “A healthy mature network of ecosystems, as is found on Mt. Pinos, is naturally adapted to wildfire and sequesters enormous amounts of carbon. Cutting trees will just cause unnecessary damage to these important qualities."
But the Forest Service says it's trying to address over-competition for limited resources. Spokesman Andrew Madsen said the idea is to reduce density of growth "so that these larger trees can have a fighting chance to survive."
The agency says the evidence is in the high density, overlapping crown canopies and thick undergrowth on the eastside shoulder of Mount Pinos between Cuddy and Lockwood valleys covering parts of Kern and Ventura counties.
"Treating these areas would reduce competition, improve the health of the (remaining) trees and increase the overall average stand diameter," a webpage about the project states. "Trees between the 24-inch and 64-inch diameter would be retained provided they are healthy and do not pose a safety risk to the public."
Information about the proposal is available online at https://www.fs.usda.gov/nfs/11558/www/nepa/113939_FSPLT3_5616166.pdf.
ForestWatch says forests like the one on Mount Pinos are "naturally resilient" to wildfire because of historical blazes that have allowed the main type of forest in the area to evolve to withstand mixed-intensity fires that burn most areas at low or moderate intensity "with patches throughout the burn at high intensity."
"Such wildfire creates complex and diverse habitat that is vital for dozens of plant and animals species," the release said.
Thinning out trees can make wildfire risks worse, it asserted, by increasing heating and drying of the forest floor, taking away fire-resistant trees and promoting the growth of invasive plants that ignite more easily.
Instead of removing trees killed by fire, drought or insects, ForestWatch wrote, they should be left as habitat and soil nutrient. It said wildfire protection efforts should focus on creating defensible space next to homes and retrofitting structures with fire-safe materials.
The Forest Service says the project was first shared with the public in late 2019 but that it dates back to a wildfire protection plan dating to 2006. It notes the Mount Pinos Forest Health Project is located within a federally designated insect and disease treatment area with a high risk of substantial tree mortality during the next 15 years.
It notes that in 2014 Congress categorically excluded from normal federal review procedures certain projects within areas infested by insects and disease.
In August a federal judge ruled in favor of the Forest Service's forest-thinning project near Frazier Park, finding that a full environmental review of the project was unnecessary.
The ruling has since been appealed by the plaintiff, Mountain Communities for Fire Safety, joined by Los Padres ForestWatch and the John Muir Project. It is one of two lawsuits over the government's forest-thinning efforts; the other is also on appeal after losing in federal court.
The lawsuits challenge a combined 2,800 acres, a little less than the total proposed on Mount Pinos.
Public comments about the more recent proposal, on Mount Pinos, may be submitted electronically at https://cara.ecosystem-management.org/Public/CommentInput?Project=58380. The deadline is May 7. Comments may also be submitted to the Mt. Pinos Ranger District office: 34580 Lockwood Valley Road, Frazier Park, California 93225.