Power Fire Restoration

Added by: 
Jake van Houten
Summary: 
In October of 2004 a substantial fire ignited that burned on approximately 16,933 acres on the Eldorado National Forest, located in the Amador Ranger District. The Power Fire EIS was prepared in order to assess the options for removal of fire killed trees, forest treatment, reconstruction of damaged or destroyed roads, and restoration of the area severely impacted by the Power Fire. In all, five alternative actions were proposed and their potential impacts were studied.
Chronology: 

October 6, 2004 – Power Fire was reported in the afternoon North of Salt Springs Reservoir, 17 Miles east of Pioneer, California.
December 17, 2004 – Scoping letters that detailed the proposed action were sent out.
December 22, 2004 – Notice of Intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement was published in the Federal Register.
January 2005 - Notice of the project was included in the Eldorado National Forest Schedule of Proposed Actions for January 2005.
April 6, 2005 - A public meeting was held in order to discuss draft EIS.
March 23, 2005 – News release of DEIS
March 25, 2005 – Notice of Availability of the Draft EIS was published in the Federal Register. The 45-day comment commenced.
May 9, 2005 – The 45-day comment period ended.
July 1, 2005 – The Final Environmental Impact Statement was published.
August 2, 2005 - ROD

Introduction:

Of the 16,933 acres of the ENF that burned during the Power Fire, approximately 38 percent burned with low intensity, while approximately 48 percent burned with high intensity. The remaining 13 percent (approximately) burned with moderate intensity. In the areas that burned with medium intensity, trees exhibited a 25 to 75 percent mortality rate, while trees in areas that burned with high intensity exhibited a 75 to 100 percent mortality rate. In these high intensity areas, the duff and litter that protects the soil was also burned away. The trees in areas that burned with low intensity were largely unaffected by the fire.

Background:

Coniferous forests of the Sierra Nevada mountain range have long been established as fire adapted systems. Under natural conditions, small, low intensity fires with low flame heights tend to occur on a relatively regular basis. These fires creep across the ground burning duff as well as small shrubs and trees, but rarely spread into the copy, killing the trees. This system was aided in design by the old-growth-style forests that dominated the landscape. Under this system, fuel loads within the forest were kept at a relatively low level and trees were relatively large and far between.

In the early 1900’s, following a wave of westward migration and the Industrial Revolution, logging in the Sierra Nevada began to steadily increase, peaking (at an almost unfathomable rate) in the 1970’s under the Reagan Administration. Logging practices at the time tended to select the largest of trees while leaving the smaller trees behind. This thinning of the large trees reduced the canopy shading and allowed the smaller trees to grow and fill in spaces that were previously occupied by the large trees. This resulted in a shift from large, scattered trees to smaller, tightly packed trees. Also, in an effort to protect timber interests and residences, fire suppression was fiercely practiced, allowing for fuel build-up.

This combination of cluttered forests and fire suppression has lead to the current fuel loaded state of the Sierra Nevada forests. Fires now burn with greater intensity and severity, less predictability, and often spread to the canopy and kill off entire stands of trees.

Purpose and Need for Action:

There are four main “needs” for action that are addressed by this EIS.

1. There is a need to reduce the long term fuel loading for the purpose of reducing future fire severity and resistance control. Trees that are dead and dying, will eventually fall and turn into snags. These snags dramatically increase the fuel loads over time.
2. There is a need to reduce sedimentation to streams and erosion from roads and hillslopes for the soil productivity. As a result of the fire, much of the ground cover (leaves, twigs, boles) were burned away, leaving bare earth in its place. This increases the potential of runoff. Also, native surfaced (dirt) roads add the risk of channeling runoff into streams and rivers, which is potentially hazardous as the Mokelumne River, which runs through the affected area, serves as the primary source of drinking water for the East San Francisco Bay Area.
3. There is an urgent need to recover the volume and value of timber killed or severely injured by the fire for the purpose of generating funds to offset the cost of restoration activities. Dead trees deteriorate quickly. From a commercial standpoint, after two years, any un-harvested trees would run the risk of being unusable, preventing any economic return to aid in the restoration effort.
4. There is a need to reduce safety hazards to the public and to forest workers. This mainly pertains to hazards by falling trees and snags.

Proposed Action:

The proposed action is to remove (via logging) fire killed and damaged trees on approximately 8,919 of the 16,933 acres burned during the Power Fire. The purpose of this action is to reduce long term fuel loading, increase ground cover, lessen the possible effects of future fires, provide safety for the public and workers, as well as recover the economic value of the killed and mortally injured trees.

Scoping and Public Involvement:

In December of 2004, scoping letters were sent out to interested individuals, organizations, agencies, and tribes. Numerous fieldtrips to the project area were also conducted for any interested individuals or groups. As a result of scoping, fifty letters from individuals and groups alike were received and addressed. In April of 2005 a public meeting was held in order to discuss the draft EIS, and presentations were made to several organizations and groups. As a result of the 45-day comment period, twenty additional comment letters were received and addressed.

Issues:

During the scoping and comment periods, several issues concerning the project arose. The most prevalent of these were:
1. Whether the use of the Pacific Southwest Region Forest Health Protection Staff’s mortality guidelines presented an unacceptable risk of cutting down trees that would otherwise have survived their injuries. Some environmental advocates claimed that the criteria used for selecting which trees to harvest were too liberal, and that a more conservative approach was necessary.
2. Whether ground based and cable logging techniques would result in unacceptable impacts on soil and downstream uses of water. Some community members were concerned that the cable logging method, which utilizes a system of cables and towers to drag out felled trees, would be too damaging to the soil and erosion would impact water quality.
3. Whether leaving four to six of the largest snags per acre and all snags in some riparian areas would lead to excessive fuel loading
4. Whether the snag retention proposed provided enough suitable habitat for birds than utilize high levels of snags in burned forests, such as black-backed woodpeckers and hairy woodpeckers.

Alternatives:

As a result of the above mentioned issues, five alternatives were developed and reviewed by the USDA FS:

Alternative 1 is the No Action alternative. Under this alternative, no trees would be removed and no roads would be repaired.

Alternative 2 is the Proposed Action. Under this alternative, all dead and dying trees (as per the SRHPS mortality guidelines) within PAC core areas, the Mokelumne Wilderness area, and areas of low burn intensity would be retained. Retention would also occur in areas deemed suitable habitat for spotted owls or goshawks. Dead and dying trees outside these areas, as well as large logs, would be removed. All trees deemed roadside hazard trees (living or dead) would be harvested. Hazard trees are those that are dangerously close to fire ignition sources such as the power lines, FS roads, flume, and campgrounds. This alternative calls for a mixed use of skyline, ground, and helicopter logging techniques. Fuel treatment under this alternative will consist of mechanical treatment as well as controlled burns. No new roads would be constructed, however temporary native surface access roads would be constructed. Existing roads, damaged or otherwise, would be improved (or in some cases paved) in order to reduce erosion and stream sedimentation.

Alternative 3 was devised in response to the concern that the mortality guidelines used to determine which trees to harvest are too inclusive. Alternative three is the same as alternative two except all trees bearing green foliage of any from or quantity is considered to be living and not eligible for harvest.
Alternative 4 is the preferred alternative and was designed to address two issues. The first of which being that, under the proposed action, too many snags would be retained. This would lead to excessive fuel build-up, pose safety hazards, and retain too much economic value. The second concern is that the proposed action does not meet the needs of bird species that dependent upon patches of snags, such as the black backed woodpecker. Alternative four is the same as alternative two except patches of snags are retained instead of leaving snags evenly scattered through the forest. Patches are of varying size and where possible, located where people are less likely to recreate.

Alternative 5 was prepared in response to the issue that ground based logging would have adverse impacts upon the soil and water quality. Alternative five is the same as alternative two, except helicopter logging would replace skyline and ground based logging. This is the only alternative that results in an economic deficit.

Environmental Consequences:

The fire itself has had the largest impact on the environment. The alternatives are proposed as a means to offset some of the damage and help to restore the forest to a more natural “old growth style” forest system, in compliance with the SNFP.

Although alternative 1 has no immediate or short term environmental consequences due to logging or restoration activities, it associated with greatest potential long term consequences. Of all alternatives, this one creates the highest level of fuel build up over time. This may lead to another large, stand replacing fire and is not in keeping with the SNFP. Also, this would have adverse effects on air quality. In the short term, this alternative would provide the most snags available for wildlife, but poses the greatest potential for negative effects on the watershed and soil quality due to lack of ground cover. This alternative also poses the greatest threat to public and worker safety.
Short-term effects of all other alternatives include impacts do soil productivity due do temporary road construction and ground based logging activity, and associated erosion. This effect is least prevalent in alternative five, as it relies upon the implementation of helicopters for the transport of snags and felled trees. Long term positive effects include lesser fuel accumulation and greater public safety. Alternative 4 provides the greatest level of public safety and the most nesting habitat for cavity nesting birds, as well as reduced fuel loads. Alternative 5 has the least amount of impact on soil erosion and productivity.

Use of Science:

Research for this EIS was conducted by USFS biologists and used best available science practices. Databases and organizations that were utilized include California Wildlife Habitat Relations, United States Geological Seurvey, United States Department of the Interior Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Region Forest Health Protection Staff, California Air Resources Board, California Department of Fish Game, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and numerous others as well as numerous scientific experts of various fields.

Controversies:

Most controversies seem to be limited to disputes over how to go about restoration and selective criteria. Most parties seem to be in agreement that restoration efforts are necessary to protect the health and future productivity of the region.

Documentation:

This document was prepared by the USDA FS and distributed to the Amador County Agricultural Commission, Amador County Board of Supervisors, Environmental Protection Agency, USDI, East Bay Municipal Water District, Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, as well as interested individuals who submitted a written request, and all parties that commented on the DEIS.

ROD:

Alternative 4 was selected.

Geographic Area: 
The Eldorado National Forest, approximately 17 miles of Pioneer, California, in Amador County. The project area is bounded by Highway 88, the Mokelumne River, and the Amador Ranger District administrative boundary.