The Stanislaus National Forest has released a 92,000-acre forest management proposal for public review. If approved, it would mark a significant increase in the scale of its normal planning efforts, which forest officials say is crucial for restoring forest health and preventing destructive wildfires.
Areas for treatment in the Social and Ecological Resilience Across the Landscape (SERAL) Project include portions of the Calaveras, Mi-Wok and Summit ranger districts around the Middle and South forks Stanislaus River, south and east of the North Fork Stanislaus River and north and west of Highway 108. It stretches east of Columbia and past Beardsley Lake.
Communities adjacent to or in the planning area in Calaveras County include Vallecito, Murphys, Forest Meadows, Avery and Hathaway Pines.
Those in Tuolumne County include Columbia, Sonora, Cedar Ridge community area, Mount Knight community area, Italian Bar community area, Jupiter community area, Twain Harte, Mi-Wuk Village, Long Barn, Cold Spring, Strawberry and Pinecrest.
With the goal of improving forest health and preventing future wildfires, the project seeks to reduce fuels accumulated due, in part, to a century of fire suppression efforts.
A combination of prescribed fire, mechanical forest thinning, mastication, non-native invasive weed control, hand treatments and salvage operations would “shift vegetation structure and composition towards conditions more in alignment” with its natural range of variation.
This would make the forest more resilient to large-scale, high severity fire, insects, disease, drought and climate change, according to the proposal.
The project is a significant reduction from the Moving Toward Resiliency within the Mokelumne to Kings Landscape (MOTOR M2K) project, a proposal released last year that included the Stanislaus National Forest and Sierra National Forest south of Yosemite National Park.
One feature of that proposal that drew criticism was the concept of conditions-based management, which would have reduced transparency and limited public involvement in planning specific projects, according to local environmental groups.
A number of forest stakeholders opposed the MOTOR M2K project and collaborated over the last year on a scaled-down project area focused on protecting Highway 108 and Highway 4 communities from a potential wildfire that could rise up out of Stanislaus River drainage.
“We argued that this was going too big, too far, and would get bottled up in lawsuits,” said Patrick Koepele, executive director of the Tuolumne River Trust and spokesperson for Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions (YSS), a group of stakeholders representing the timber industry, grazing interests, local government, environmental organizations, business interests, motorized recreation groups and state and federal agencies, among others.
While the SERAL Project planning area is significantly smaller and doesn’t permit conditions-based management in federally mandated environmental reviews, it would still mark a sizable increase in the acreage of management activities performed year to year on the Stanislaus National Forest.
Approximately 92,000 acres of the 117,000-acre project area would be subject to management activities under the proposal. The rest of the area is owned by private/industrial timber land companies and other smaller private landowners.
“Often we do up to about 5,000 acres, so taking on something that’s 92,000 acres is a big leap, but needed to increase our pace and scale to help this forest be more resilient to disturbances,” said Carol Ewell, a Forest Service planning lead for the project. “By increasing the scale of the planning area … we can focus more time on implementing the treatments.”
Ewell said the planning area, which interweaves with several communities along the Highway 108 corridor and some along the Highway 4 corridor, hasn’t burned in many years. It’s severely departed from its range of variability, meaning the potential for a wildfire is greater, Ewell said.
“We’re trying to be proactive, we know disturbances are coming. That’s a natural part of the Sierra,” Ewell said.
The proposal also includes 60 individual plan amendments related to California spotted owl habitat conservation to reflect new scientific guidance released in 2019, Ewell said.
Budgeting, staffing and funding to implement new projects that result out of the planning still remain a challenge, but local partners will be applying for grants, Ewell said.
Koepele said processes to increase capacity for fuels reduction and forest restoration projects have been in the works in recent years, especially since a Master Stewardship Agreement between Tuolumne County and the Stanislaus National Forest was signed in 2018.
Ewell said the project could be a model for managing forestlands north of the North Fork Stanislaus River in Calaveras County as well.
“We’re hoping to kind of prove ourselves, and make it successful to repeat and evolve this planning process as we go to the next landscape,” Ewell said.
Giving a positive review of the planning effort, Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center Executive Director John Buckley said the project could increase fuel reduction and restoration treatments that would be “good for communities, the wood products industry, and those who care about protecting at-risk wildlife and watershed values” if it ends up gaining enough support and funding.
The Stanislaus National Forest has initiated the public scoping period for the project, and will be accepting public comments until Aug. 15.
A draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) is anticipated to be available for public comment in the spring of 2021, and a final environmental impact statement (FEIS) and draft record of decision will be available in the summer of 2021. The Forest Service aims to have a final signed record of decision in early 2022.
Members of the public can submit comments on the proposal at cara.ecosystem-management.org/Public/commentInput?Project=56500.
Written comments may also be submitted via mail to Stanislaus National Forest, Attn: SERAL, 19777 Greenley Road, Sonora, CA 95370.
Forest Service staff will be holding a virtual public meeting Aug. 5 at 5 p.m. to provide an overview of the project's proposed actions.
R.S.V.P. to Katie Wilkinson at email@example.com with subject “SERAL OPEN HOUSE” prior to Tuesday, Aug.4, 2020.