22,000 Acres of Fuel Reduction Planned, Less than 4,000 Completed: Part Three of The Caldor Fire and the Impact of Forest Management

This article is Part Three of my series examining how forest management in previous years impacted the earliest days of the Caldor Fire. Part Three explores how concerns about the Spotted Owl habitat reduced the scope of the Trestle Project, and how the project was ultimately left unfinished.

It’s September 11, 2017. Eldorado National Forest (ENF) Supervisor Laurence Crabtree is signing a 13-page document to give final approval to the Trestle Forest Health Project (TFHP). After four years of intensive study, environmental impact statements, and community meetings, the TFHP can finally begin, albeit in a reduced scope.

Five years earlier the ENF determined that forest to the southeast of Grizzly Flats was unhealthy, overgrown, and dangerous. As I previously reported, the ENF had proposed The Trestle Forest Health Project (TFHP), a multi-year project to reduce fuel loads and repair access roads across miles of unmanaged forest. The goal was to reduce wildfire danger to Grizzly Flats and surrounding communities as much as possible while negatively impacting the environment as little as possible.

After securing community support and government funding, the ENF began a multitude of studies as part of an eventual environmental impact statement which would guide forest supervisors in choosing the most efficient solution to achieve the project’s goals. As reported in Part Two of this series, we now know part of this study included an in-depth analysis of potential fire behavior across the project area. The results of that analysis accurately predicted what would happen in the event of a fire in the Dogtown Creek drainage system, as tragically proven by the Caldor Fire.

Most components of the environmental impact statement, including the fuel and fire analysis, recommended Alternative 2 for the project. Alternative 2 was one of four options put forth to complete the project and was the overwhelming favorite for those conducting project analysis.

In total, Alternative 2 would treat over 20,000 acres of forest to improve forest health and reduce the possibility of extreme fire behavior. This would have included nearly 5,000 acres of mechanical thinning, hundreds of feet of brush cutting along Grizzly-Caldor and Leoni Roads, over 9,500 acres of understory burning, 1,500 acres of small tree cutting, nearly 2,000 acres of hand cutting, and more. Alternative 2 would also clear and rebuild dozens of miles of forest access roads, providing critical access to ground crews in the event of a wildfire.

In the Environmental Impact statement, the Hydrology Analysis recommended Alternative 2. As we previously reported, the Fuel and Fire Analysis recommended the same. The Silviculture report, which dives into forest sustainability, also supported Alternative 2. The Aquatics Biosphere report recommended Alternative 2. Even the Economic Analysis claimed that, while Alternative 2 would be the most aggressive option, it would also be the most efficient.

Yet, on September 11, 2017 Forest Supervisor Crabtree signed the approval letter for the TFHP to move forward with Alternative 5. Why?

Enter the California Spotted Owl.

This subspecies of spotted owl live primarily in Northern California in old growth forests and prey on small rodents and insects. They grow to be 17 inches tall, on average, with a wingspan of nearly four feet. Spotted owls are monogamous and most live in the hollows of large trees.

While the California Spotted Owl is not listed as threatened or endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it is considered to be a species of special concern by the U.S. Forest Service. So much so that the Wildlife Analysis, the final report that went into the Environmental Impact Statement for the TFHP, expressed concern that the spotted owl could become threatened if Alternative 2 were chosen. Instead, the report concluded, the more conservative Alternative 5 would be the preferable option.

In his decision letter, Forest Supervisor Crabtree wrote, “Alternative 5 best meets the purpose and need while addressing concerns related to impacts to the California Spotted Owl while accomplishing priority fuels reduction and forest health treatments within the Wildland Urban Intermix and other forest areas to effectively improve forest resiliency and reduce fire risk in the project landscape.”

While much of the same treatments proposed in Alternative 2 would be implemented in Alternative 5, the overall acres of fuel reduction would decrease from over 20,000 to approximately 14,000. The thinning would still be completed in approximately three years with the understory burning continuing for years after.

Still, before we point fingers at the California Spotted Owl, it’s important to note that regardless of the option that was chosen, only a fraction of the project’s goals were actually completed prior to the start of the Caldor Fire in August 2021.

Over the past couple of months, The Jericho Report has reached out to the ENF several times in an attempt to understand exactly how much of the Trestle Forest Project was completed prior to the start of the Caldor Fire. Jennifer Chapman, a public relations officer in the ENF. confirmed that, while fuel reduction was the goal of the project, no more than 4,000 acres of forest were treated by July 2021.

Further, Chapman told us, many of those acres “overlapped” and it’s difficult to gain an understanding of how many acres were effectively treated. When I asked for clarification she told me, if a crew thins 100 acres of underbrush one day and come back the next day to remove the piles of refuse, that may be counted as more than 100 acres. I asked Chapman if she could estimate how many acres were actually treated and she said, “I really don’t know. Maybe hundreds. Maybe a couple thousand. Certainly not 4,000.”

Indeed, when I reached Jon Groveman, a public relations supervisor, I received similar numbers of acres ‘completed.’ However, Groveman was not able to clarify whether these numbers “overlapped.” I also asked Groveman if the approximate 70 miles of road reconstruction was completed and he replied, “Additional database analysis is needed by the USDS to respond to this request.”

In 2012, the Trestle Forest Health Project identified the Eldorado National Forest as presenting an extreme threat to Grizzly Flats and the surrounding communities due to an unmanaged, overgrown forest. By 2016, ENF had secured funding and support to treat over 20,000 acres of forest, which was reduced to 16,000 acres by 2017. By July of 2021, nine years after the project began, less than 4,000 acres of fuel reduction were treated. A month later, the most destructive wildfire in El Dorado County history would explode out of the Dogtown Creek drainage.

The Jericho Report is working on future installments in this series to examine what led to the reduced scope of the TFHP, as well as the future goals of the ENF for forest management in areas of unburned woodlands.

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