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Big Bear Calif. Forest Management Plan Sparks Controversy

"Even with catastrophic wildfires raging across the western United States, We’re still being asked, as an agency, why we’re trying to slow it down. That’s confusing. I’ll be honest, it’s just mind boggling.”

A home burns during the Bear fire, part of the North Lightning Complex fires in the Berry Creek area of unincorporated Butte County, California on September 9, 2020. - Dangerous dry winds whipped up California's record-breaking wildfires and ignited new blazes, as hundreds were evacuated by helicopter and tens of thousands were plunged into darkness by power outages across the western United States. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
(TNS) - Big Bear just had a close call.

Officials don’t yet know what sparked the Radford fire on Sept. 5. But while the blaze triggered hundreds of evacuations and consumed more than 1,000 acres of San Bernardino National Forest south of town, a combination of aggressive firefighting, shifting winds and a monsoonal storm meant none of the mountain community’s 20,000 residents lost their homes.

Worries about close calls turning into catastrophes — such as the Camp fire, which in 2018 devastated the town of Paradise — are what keeps Jason Collier, environmental coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service in the San Bernardino National Forest, up at night.

That’s why the frustration is clear in Collier’s otherwise chipper voice when he discusses pushback his agency is getting from some in the Big Bear community since his agency went public with a forest management plan called the North Big Bear Landscape Restoration Project.

It’s the Forest Service’s most comprehensive proposal to date to improve forest conditions and reduce wildfire risks. The idea is that by removing trees and doing prescribed burns, they’ll reduce potential fire fuel in 13,000 acres of forest along the entire north shore of Big Bear Lake. A final public comment period for the project ended in mid-August, with a decision from the Forest Service likely before the end of the year.

While some residents support the project, others say the devil is in the details.

They’ve submitted hundreds of comments raising concerns about the number of trees the Forest Service plans to cut down, and about the agency’s plans for new trails in the area. With worries over how those proposed changes could affect local wildlife, including Big Bear’s much-loved bald eagles, there’s even talk of a legal challenge.

“The sad part to me is that they seem to be looking at the forest as fuel rather than as habitat. And there’s a lot more to the forest than just seeing it as fuel that needs to be cut down,” said Sandy Steers, executive director of the environmental group Friends of Big Bear Valley.

Collier, and other project supporters, say opponents are missing the forest for the trees.

“The eagles are there because they like a forest,” Collier said. “They don’t like bare, open land with a bunch of black sticks laying on the ground.”

“I hate to be so blunt. But my question is: What’s the public missing?”

Even with catastrophic wildfires raging across the western United States, Collier said, “We’re still being asked, as an agency, why we’re trying to slow it down. That’s confusing. I’ll be honest, it’s just mind boggling.”

As a combination of drought, climate change and years of avoiding aggressive forest management put more areas at risk for catastrophic wildfires, the struggle playing out in Big Bear is one that, in coming years, is expected to be repeated in communities across California and beyond.

Fighting for the forest

On the western edge of Dana Point Park, in the tiny town of Fawnskin along Big Bear Lake’s north shore, Steers took out a telescope and focused it on a cluster of pine trees a mile away.

A group of construction workers eating lunch in the park asked, a bit shyly at first, if they could take a peek. They each then took turns catching a glimpse of a massive nest, 120 feet in the air, that’s home to a trio of bald eagles made famous through a live streaming “Nest Cam” run by Steers’ organization.

Protecting habitat for the eagles, deer, foxes, rare butterflies and other wildlife that calls this part of the valley home is driving much of Steers’ opposition to the current version of the North Big Bear Landscape Restoration Project.

Steers says she’s well aware of the risk from wildfires. She also supports clearing trees and vegetation within 100 feet of homes. But she said, “I don’t understand the need way up into the forest.” And she fears there hasn’t been enough careful analysis of how this plan could affect the area’s entire ecosystem.

But Forest Service officials insist the big, environmental picture is precisely what they have in mind when it comes to this forest restoration project. And between fire risk and climate change, agency spokeswoman Yassy Wilkins said the Forest Service is past the point of being able to do minor projects close to homes. The way of life that locals love is already under threat.

“We are trying to protect what we have left,” she said.

For centuries, lightning strikes would trigger wildfires that would burn through stretches of the Big Bear Valley, a cycle that would happen perhaps every five to 30 years. The bark of hardy pine trees could withstand these low-intensity fires, while more vulnerable trees, smaller vegetation and debris that had piled up on the forest floor would be eaten by flames.

But since the modern fire management era began, in 1910, Wilkins said the strategy for places like the San Bernardino National Forest, which abuts residential areas, has been to protect life and property by suppressing wildfires. While that means there’s never been a blaze that’s wiped out Big Bear, it also means the surrounding forest looks very different today than it did in its natural state a century ago. And when a wildfire does come, it burns so intensely that it often leaves little more than scorched earth in its path.

In some stretches of the forest, north of the lake, Collier said there are about eight times as many trees as there should be, with 300 to 400 trees per acre now when it should be closer to 50 to 80. That’s creating a string of problems for the forest, for wildlife and for nearby humans.

Junipers and white firs are taking over, crowding out those hardy pine trees. With more competition for water and sunlight, older trees also aren’t growing as tall as they used to, bringing the canopy closer to the ground. Beetle infestations can spread much more quickly in such packed, unhealthy forests, while the groundwater table also is strained. And the dense forest canopy is making it harder for owls and other raptors to hunt while also creating shade that makes it easier for large shrubs and other non-native species to grow.

That low-lying vegetation is considered “ladder fuel,” which can carry flames up to the tree canopy. That helps fires spread rapidly and become so tall and intense that Wilkins said firefighters, for their own safety, can’t even try to knock them down. Such a scenario would be a recipe for disaster in places like Big Bear.

Collier’s team did an inventory of tree density and other conditions in the project area, then used simulations to get an idea of how the local forest would react during a wildfire. He said the results were clear.

“It would most likely be catastrophic,” he said. “It really boils down to just too many trees per acre and too much fuel out there.”

That scenario has already created more frequent and more intense wildfires across the West. Collier pointed to last year’s Dixie fire as an example, which was the first in recorded history to burn from one side of the Sierra Nevada to the other.

In past years, the Forest Service tried to mimic the area’s once-natural cycle by starting and managing low-intensity, prescribed burns to help reduce fuel loads. But when forests get too dense, the risk of such burns turning into full-fledged wildfires is just too great.

We saw that play out in New Mexico earlier this year, when prescribed burns got out of control and destroyed hundreds of homes. That prompted the Forest Service to pause all such operations, a 90-day restriction that expired Tuesday, Sept. 13.

It’s a Catch-22, Collier said. Fewer prescribed burns mean bigger fuel loads and more risk. So he said the main goal of this Big Bear project is to thin the forest enough so the Fire Service can safely resume prescribed burns.

Not all stretches of the 13,000-acre project area will need thinning, Collier said. In areas that do, he said they’ll target sick and younger trees. That’s why he said it’s hard to estimate now how many trees might come out, with the project’s flexible language allowing crews to make those determinations as they go.

The plan also caps thinning to a maximum of 2,500 acres per year. So Collier said it’s not like 13,000 acres of forest will be transformed in a matter of months.

“It’s not going to be something that you can wake up tomorrow and find that the world looks drastically different,” he said.

“Unless there’s a wildfire,” he couldn’t resist adding. “Then it most likely will look very, very different.”

The consequences of major wildfires don’t stop once the flames are out.

Flooding and erosion are major concerns even years after a fire, as evidenced by mudslides this week in Oak Glen and Forest Falls, which were in the path of 2020’s El Dorado fire.

We’re also seeing that once a major wildfire moves through our forests, drought and climate change are delaying the forest’s natural recovery. And when forests do come back, they often look quite different.

Around Yosemite National Park, which has been battered by wildfires in recent years, scientists say new growth in burn areas is shifting from woodlands to shrublands. And Collier said similar changes are showing up in burned areas around Big Bear, where they’re seeing the high desert’s ecosystem creep up into the mountains instead of seeing new pine trees emerge.

“If the public wants the forests the way that they are to enjoy them, then no action on our part is really not a choice,” Collier said. “Because it’s not if we’re going to lose them, it’s going to be when.”

That’s why Loren Hafen, who’s president of the tourism group Visit Big Bear, said he’s “very supportive” of the Forest Service’s plan.

“We either have to accept the fire, and let Mother Nature do its thing. And we can’t really live here as well,” Hafen said. “Or we’ve got to help Mother Nature by thinning (the forest) so it’s healthy and we do not have such huge fires.”

But those trails…

Thinning the forest to reduce fire risk is one thing. But even some locals who support that part of the project take issue with plans to also add some 41 miles of dirt trails in the 13,000-acre project area.

Wilkins said these plans got lumped into one project because they’re trying to look at the area holistically, with the agency’s dual mission in mind to protect public lands while also creating opportunities for the public to safely enjoy them.

The forests already have a few well-loved trails, widely known to both locals and many of the 8 million visitors who come to Big Bear each year. But as forest ecologist Kat Shay, who manages the Southern California Mountains Foundation’s Big Bear Trails Program, walked along one such trail in the project area, she said too much traffic can disturb ecosystems while also disturbing the peace most people come to the mountains to find.

That’s why locals and visitors have made miles of their own trails in many parts of the forest, including within the 13,000-acre project area. Some user-created paths connect to developed trails or unmanaged roads. Some bring hikers, horseback riders and bikers right through sensitive wildlife or vegetation areas.

For this project to advance, Shay said she’s confident that Forest Service experts have determined that adding formal trails will be better for the long-term health of the area than not adding any at all.

Rather than carving 41 miles of trails from scratch, the Forest Service aims to largely turn existing user-created paths and unmaintained roads into formal trails in phases over the next several years. The agency also plans to block off paths that cut through sensitive areas and, with help from volunteers like the ones Shay manages, maintain the trails going forward.

The first version of the plan, which came out last year, called for 47 miles of trails. One went within 100 feet of the tree where the bald eagles nest. Another cut through endangered habitat on the east end of the valley. Steers and others alerted the Forest Service to those conflicts, and the agency removed those trails in their revised plan.

Steers sees this as a worrisome sign that that project hasn’t been well planned. But Collier sees the changes as a sign they’re listening to residents and refining their plan to try to balance concerns from everyone involved.

But, so far, one of the biggest points of contention remains unresolved.

The current plan calls for allowing Class 1 ebikes — which have pedal assist, battery powered engines, but no throttles, and cap out at 20 mph — on the new trails. The Forest Service says there’s steady demand for a network of trails to ride these increasingly popular bikes. Collier noted they’re particularly helpful for people with disabilities who might otherwise struggle to get out into these forest areas.

But Steers and others have asked in comments to the Forest Service: Who will be checking to make sure people aren’t riding ebikes with throttles that can go faster than 30 mph? What about the noise and stories of batteries sparking fires?

The Forest Service has to respond to the public’s last round of comments in the next few weeks. From there, Collier said they could step back and revise the plan again — with Steers hopeful that ebike-access will be cut out entirely.

Collier expects a final decision, which would pave the way for work to start, sometime in the next few months.

“I don’t think you can ever have a plan this big that everyone’s going to be happy with,” Shay said. “But I think everyone’s goal going into this was to make it as good for as many people as possible.”


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