This article is Part One of my series examining how forest management in previous years impacted the earliest days of the Caldor Fire. Part One explores what the Trestle Forest Health Project was and why it was needed.
It is early 2013 and Kathryn Hardy, Forest Supervisor of Eldorado National Forest, is preparing a letter to residents of Grizzly Flats. Hardy is writing about the proposed Trestle Forest Health Project, a multi-year undertaking by the United States Forest Service to reduce fire hazards and improve forest health in the Grizzly Flats and Leoni Meadows region. Her eight-page letter lays out the scope of the proposal and why the project is needed.
After decades of little-to-no-intervention, the forest here is overgrown and unhealthy. Fuel loads and fire hazards are high. Roads are washed out and impassible. Wildlife habitats are under threat. New growth vegetation is quickly swallowing a once-sustainable forest.
Hardy’s letter states that these challenges can be solved through a multi-year thinning and fuel reduction treatment across 20,000 acres of woodland. The forest service is looking at the Trestle Forest Health Project (TFHP) as an option to restore forest health and protect the surrounding communities from increased wildfire threats. Hardy writes that, following an environmental impact study, the work could begin by 2015 and be completed by 2020.
In reading Hardy’s letter it’s easy to gain an appreciation for how massive the TFHP will be. The proposal calls for over 15,000 acres of prescribed understory burning, nearly 5,000 acres of forest thinning, the reconstruction of over 70 miles of forest roads, and the removal of 30 miles of fencing and other man-made barriers.
Hardy writes that while the TFHP is indeed a large-scale undertaking, it is needed “to reduce fuel loading and reduce the threat of large, high-intensity wildfire threats to Grizzly Flats, Leoni Meadows, and other landowners.” Likewise, repairing impassible roads and removing unnecessary barriers will “improve safety for human access for recreational use, fire suppression, and management activities.”
At Hardy’s invitation, several El Dorado County residents and civic groups write ENF to voice their opinions on the the proposed project. The response is overwhelmingly positive. The Grizzly Flats Fire Safe Council express their support for the project and offer ideas on how residents could retain unsalable wood. The El Dorado Count Board of Supervisors urge the forest service to allow residents to access biomass waste and firewood, but generally support the project as well. Some residents express concern about specific project actions, such as the cutting of temporary access roads, but no letters are received in opposition to the project.
By late 2013, the forest service is conducing a study which will develop an Environmental Impact Statement on the TFHP. The research will take months and include multiple federal, state, and local agencies and civic groups. The goal of the study is to understand the environmental and economic impacts the TFHP may have on the region. Importantly, the study is also designed to understand what effects a hypothetical wildfire in the Caldor area could have on the surrounding communities in the absence of forest management here (more on this in the next article).
As the forest service is conducting its research, local civil groups hold public meetings to discuss the project and hear residents’ concerns. On January 10, 2014 the Grizzly Flats Community Services District Board holds one such meeting and invite two representatives from the forest service to answer questions about the TFHP. Much like the letters received the previous year, concerns are raised about specific actions proposed within the project. Again, though, support is expressed and comments remain overwhelmingly positive.
Given the purpose of the community services district board, much of the meeting discusses potential impacts of the project on the region’s watershed. Both representatives from the forest service reassure the group that the ongoing environmental impact study will focus on watershed concerns. They remind the attendees that the goals of the project must be completed in order to protect Grizzly Flats from increased fire danger, but there are several options the forest service has in achieving those goals.
Forest service documents from this period make clear that the forest is unhealthy, massive thinning is required to protect the community from increased wildfire danger, and the public overwhelmingly supports the goals as laid out in the TFHP. However, eight years after its proposal, a small fraction of the project is completed and El Dorado County is just weeks away from a devastating wildfire.
In the next installments of this series we will explore the findings published in the environmental impact statement, including the positive effect the TFHP would have on a theoretical wildfire in the Caldor area. We will look at the delays in getting the project off the ground and we will examine why the “completed” acres of forest are drastically smaller than what was proposed all those years ago.
Ultimately, we will try to answer the question, had the Trestle Forest Health Project been completed as proposed would Grizzly Flats have been saved?