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SB Forest clinging to life

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December 30, 2003 12:57PM
No quick, easy or inexpensive fixes for forest

12:48 AM PST on Tuesday, December 30, 2003

By BEN GOAD / The Press-Enterprise

The San Bernardino National Forest is clinging to life.

Besieged by drought and billions of tree-killing bark beetles, ravaged by historic wildfires and recently beset by flash floods and mudslides, half a million acres in the forest have seen an unprecedented environmental crisis in the past 12 months.

But with the advent of 2004 comes hope among forest managers, scholars and lawmakers that the forest's woes - the culmination of a century of neglect and mismanagement - will finally be addressed.

It will be the start of a grueling and costly endeavor, San Bernardino National Forest Supervisor Gene Zimmerman said.

"It took us 100 years to get into this mess, and it will take at least 30 to get out of it," he said. "It'll take seven or eight years just to make a dent in the thinning we need to do."

Zimmerman said he plans to use the next year - the last of his career - to implement a "triage-style" tree-cutting program.

By focusing on the most combustible areas of forest that are near homes, the plan would reduce the immediate threats of more fires - perhaps worse than the October blazes that scorched more than 150,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,000 homes.

The initiative is the most important and costly part of a shared plan held by forest managers and emergency officials to simultaneously address the brown areas of dead forest and the green areas where swarms of beetles are lying in wait, poised for attack next spring

The multifaceted plan, which is still being formulated in meetings among agencies and in congressional hearings, will cost more than $100 million in the next year, officials and lawmakers estimate.

Reduced environmental restrictions for tree-removal projects laid out in the newly passed Healthy Forest Restoration Act will help. The legislation, criticized by some environmental groups as a veiled gift to commercial logging concerns, shortens the public appeals process and, in some cases, allows for thinning without any environmental analysis.

"I want to get the ball rolling on a restored, healthy forest," Zimmerman said. "I don't want to leave a segment of the public behind, but we've got a lot of work we need to get done before we lose it all."

During a recent congressional hearing held at Lake Arrowhead, Zimmerman and U.S. Forest Chief Dale Bosworth said they plan to use all available funding in the next year to cut down dead trees around communities and near roads.

Local, state and federal agencies are set to begin work on long-term measures needed to restore the forest to a healthy state.

Among them are:

The creation of a tree-removal and regrowth plan designed to establish a good mix of old and young trees.

The reintroduction of planned burns as a forest-thinning tool.

Finding ways to better handle marketable and unmarketable wood taken out of the mountains during the thinning process. Possibilities include a sawmill and co-generation plants.

An evaluation of land-use regulations in areas damaged by the fire and areas inherently dangerous for urban development

A coordinated lobbying effort to bring to the area hundreds of millions of dollars made available by recent federal legislation.

"If all we do is cut down the dead trees, we're not really addressing the problem," said Texas A&M University professor Thomas Bonnicksen, who was commissioned by Congress to gather information about the fires as they burned across Southern California.

"We need to take a comprehensive, decades-ahead view," he said. "All of these things need to be happening simultaneously."

More than a million trees in the San Bernardino National Forest are dead from five years of drought and bark-beetle infestation. Less than 5 percent of those trees were burned in the Old and Grand Prix fires, U.S. Forest Service officials estimate.

The rest represent the biggest danger now facing the forest - the threat that another fire will reach into the crowns of dead pine trees and race into the mountain communities.

The forest immediately south of Lake Arrowhead has been burned over and is now relatively safe from fire, but the resort town still faces threats from the north, east and west, Bonnicksen said.

The entire Big Bear area, which has seen less impact from the bark-beetle outbreak, is also threatened as more trees succumb, he said. Idyllwild, which sits surrounded by dead pines and chaparral in the southern reaches of the San Bernardino National Forest, is perhaps the most at risk.

"It's just dead trees standing in a brush field," Bonnicksen said. "I can't think of anything more explosive than that."
Growing a new forest

As crews work to prevent another disaster, the forest continues to die at an alarming rate.

In areas already infested by bark beetles, an average of 60 percent of trees are already dead or dying, Bonnicksen said. By next fall, it will be roughly 90 percent, he said.

"Right now, the beetles are hibernating," he said. "In the spring, when it starts to get dry, they're going to come out with a vengeance - you can be sure of that. They're not going to stop until virtually all the trees are gone."

No amount of rain will save the trees already hit by the beetle infestation.

Local forests were largely undisturbed, except by naturally occurring wildfires, until the mid-1800s, when settlers arrived in Idyllwild and the areas around Big Bear Lake and what would become Lake Arrowhead.

Sawmills were erected and trees were felled. Most of the forest that surrounds what is now Lake Arrowhead was clear-cut shortly before the beginning of the 20th century.

In the Big Bear area, large expanses became cattle-grazing land.

Then around the turn of the 20th century came a national trend toward fighting major wildfires, rather than letting them burn themselves out. Little was understood then about the need to thin the forest for its own good. Instead, it was allowed to grow at an unhealthy rate.

Now, the few remaining trees that predate human settlement are threatened by younger trees that are using all the available water.

Still, little thinning is done on a regular basis. Unless an intensive campaign is launched to thin areas of the overstocked forest that are still alive, they too will fall to the beetles, experts say.

"If we had more people and more equipment, we could do more of that," said Jim Wright, the California Department of Forestry's chief of fire protection. "All of our available crews are focused on the bug-kill area."

Wright pointed to a need for more contracts with private tree-removal crews to thin green areas of the forest while public crews address the fire threat in the brown areas.

Meanwhile, Bonnicksen said, seeds from trees in dying areas of the forest need to be collected and more nursery programs installed. Otherwise, it will be impossible to regrow the forest as it was because only trees indigenous to specific areas will restore the natural components of a healthy forest, he said.

Without a seed-collection and tree-planting program, burned areas of the once-pine-dominated forest will be replaced by stands of oak trees. Largely deciduous, the oaks are less vulnerable to fire."

'Firewise' development

For decades, fire officials have urged residents of mountain communities to clear areas around their homes. In the wake of the Old and Grand Prix fires, some officials are suggesting a different tact: building where the forest allows.

The "Firewise" philosophy stems from a greater respect for the forces of nature, which mankind sometimes underestimates, said CDF spokeswoman Karen Terrill.

More than 1,000 homes were destroyed in the two arson-set blazes, including hundreds in the communities of Lytle Creek, Cedar Glen and Old Waterman Canyon, all three of which are carved into steep hillsides.

In Cedar Glen, firefighters battling the Old Fire were thwarted by narrow roads. In Lytle Creek, some were temporarily trapped when flames jumped the only road out of town. In Old Waterman Canyon, wooden fences and windblown embers helped the fires dart along streets, and poorly placed vents guided heat and flames into houses.

"We've got to acknowledge that Mother Nature is more powerful than we are, " Terrill said.

In keeping with firewise principles, a new state law allows California's fire marshal to increase safety measures to reduce the spread of fire between homes, especially in wildland/urban interface zones - areas where homes are built adjacent to forests.

The building standards to be enacted under Assembly Bill 1216 will affect exterior walls, attic eave vents, windows, porches, decks, balconies and eaves, state Fire Marshal John Tennant said when the bill was passed in mid-October.

County officials are looking into widening roads for better access for firetrucks and restrictions on development in some areas. A blue-ribbon commission created by former Gov. Gray Davis and supported by Gov. Schwarzenegger could decide those issues next year.

But such sweeping changes must take place quickly, while the threat remains in the public consciousness, said Wright, the CDF chief.

"The public is prone to get away from these issues once the smoke is gone," he said. "We've got to try to keep the fire lit."

Shared vision

In congressional hearings and public meetings, forest mangers and fire experts have begun a discussion of the forest's future - one in which thousands of tons of wood and brush would be removed every week and put to use, rather than burned or buried in landfills.

Bonnicksen, Zimmerman and others envision a small sawmill located somewhere between the San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountain ranges that could handle all the largest trees removed from the San Bernardino and Cleveland national forests.

Wood-products experts are skeptical that the forest would be able to sustain a mill, especially if public support fades. Now, all the marketable logs are trucked to Tulare County, site of the nearest mill.

Meanwhile, local leaders suggest bringing biological-mass cogeneration plants, which burn wood to produce electrical power, to area mountain communities. The plants could significantly reduce the amount of brush and slash from the forest and, at the same time, burn the material for energy.

" But the measure could cause taxes to go up, at least temporarily, in those areas unless enough public funding is obtained through grants or new legislation, he said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she plans to head up the push for a large chunk of $760 million earmarked for tree-removal across the nation in the next fiscal year. Half of that money, allocated in the Healthy Forest Act, must be used in forest areas close to communities.

Already, $225 million in federal funds is being used to remove dead trees, to thin the forest and to prevent erosion in the San Bernardino and Cleveland national forests, said Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, who, together with Feinstein, secured the money.

But estimates of the need run as high as $1 billion, he said.

In the long run, erosion control is as important as the tree removal, Lewis said. Heavy erosion would transform the pine and oak in the San Bernardino National Forest to primarily scrub oak, he added.

The sheer amount of the tree-removal and erosion-prevention work means it would take years - perhaps a decade - to accomplish, Lewis said.

Staff writer Richard Brooks contributed to this report.

Reach Ben Goad at (909) 806-3063 or bgoad@pe.com

SB Forest clinging to life

katrina island 854December 30, 2003 12:57PM

Re: SB Forest clinging to life

Wizard 454December 31, 2003 04:25PM

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Wizard 518December 31, 2003 04:41PM

Re: SB Forest clinging to life

LaughingBear 489December 31, 2003 05:37PM

Re: SB Forest clinging to life

Wizard 432December 31, 2003 06:50PM

Re: SB Forest clinging to life

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