Hazard tree removal in public rights-of-way delayed by state and federal agencies

Hazardous tree removal along Calaveras County public roads could be delayed until mid-October while a state agency files paperwork for FEMA.

A squabble between an obscure state agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency over possible American Indian sites is delaying work to remove 8,500 dead and dying trees that pose threats to public roads in the Butte Fire burn scar.

Meanwhile, the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday is scheduled to consider paying nearly $1.6 million for observers and archaeologists to stand and watch as workers remove the trees. The observers and archeologists will be watching for American Indian cultural and burial sites and for habitat and wildlife such as the California red-legged frog, which is listed as an endangered species.

The latest delay could push the first tree removal out to mid-October, said Public Works Director Jeff Crovitz.

“This is out of our hands now,” Crovitz said. “We’re bystanders while this is sorted out.”

The dispute is between the California Office of Historic Preservation and federal officials. In a letter dated Sept. 13, State Historic Preservation Officer Julianne Polanco told FEMA Regional Environmental Officer Alessandro Amaglio that her agency opposed the federal agency’s finding that there would be “no adverse effects” from the tree removal.

FEMA, for its part, said its conclusion was based on comments from the Ione Band of Miwok Indians, the Jackson Rancheria Band of Miwuk Indians and also the Calaveras Band of Mi-Wuk Indians.

FEMA proposes to include archeological and tribal monitors in locations where project activities cannot avoid known resources, according to the letter from Polanco. FEMA documents say the “monitors will also be present during project work and will be

able to direct work crews to minimize or avoid adverse effects to tribal resources they have identified.”

Polanco’s letter lists six reasons why this in unacceptable, including a requirement to map the entire work area “in sufficient detail to understand potential effects. The (State Historic Preservation Office) requests that FEMA provide maps showing the (potential effects) for the entire undertaking in both overview and detailed levels.”

An item on Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors agenda calls for approval of almost $1.6 million more to pay for cultural and biological monitors to allow tree-cutting and debris-removal crews to work as quickly as possible. Monitors will work with each of the scheduled 18 work crews under the proposal.

A federal review determined that the county is required to provide biological and cultural monitoring to assure that the habitat of the red-legged frog, the frogs themselves and cultural resources are unaffected by the project.

The $1.6 million on the agenda Tuesday is only the latest expense in a total that is now approaching $14 million for the entire hazard tree-removal effort.

In mid-June, the Board of Supervisors approved a $2.2 million contract with Tetra Tech. Inc., of Sacramento to perform arboricultural and tree removal marking and monitoring services. A few weeks later the board approved a $9.7 million contract with Phillps and Jordan, a national emergency mitigation corporation headquartered in Tennessee, to remove the trees identified by Tetra Tech.

The removal work is scheduled to involve 18 crews and take up to 55 days. A potential start date of mid-October pushes the end of the work out to mid-December, which means falling and debris removal crews could be working in wet and snowy weather.

Forestry experts say root systems of the dead trees have been decomposing. Working among unstable dead trees in inclement weather – and especially in high winds – could be a recipe for worker injury and damage to public and private property.

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