Sawdust and wood chips carpeted the ground, and a heavy pine scent filled the air on the outskirts of Independence Cemetery east of Glencoe last week.
Ringing out from the opening of a freshly logged section of derelict pine plantation, the crackling of trees crunching and splitting competed with the monstrous roar of logging machinery.
In March of 2016, Pat McGreevy submitted the first grant request for a potentially landmark forest-thinning project on 912 acres of Bureau of Land Management land east of Glencoe. After three years of dealing with the grant process, regulatory details, planning and surveys, the project has finally broken ground.
“Hard work and persistence has finally led to success and I am elated,” McGreevy said.
McGreevy and the rest of the Calaveras-Amador Forestry Team has been writing grants to secure funds for fuels management and forest health projects in the Central Sierra since 2015.
Funded through a 2014 water bond initiative from the Sierra Nevada Conservancy (SNC), a California state agency, the $1.5 million project fits into a long-term strategy to connect to fuel breaks to protect the communities and industrial timber in northeast Calaveras County.
With every tree 12 inches or less in diameter at breast height (DBH) to be hauled off for chips, or biomass, across about 140 acres of the total area, the first phase is underway. The contract for that portion of the work was awarded to Tanner Logging of Murphys.
On the east side of the project boundary, a masticator was busy mowing up manzanita like tissue through a paper shredder. Westward, a feller-buncher was almost simultaneously sawing through and grasping 100-foot-tall pine trees. The downed trees were carried off by a skid-loader to be de-limbed, cut down to 33-foot lengths and stacked by a processor.
Some of the unsaleable material will be redistributed with the masticated material as a mulch on the site to suppress regeneration of brush. The goal is to increase the success of an initial attack by first responders in the event of a fire, since a canopy fire resulting from ladder fuels would be more dangerous and would likely require an aerial attack.
McGreevy said the biomass may also be gasified at a cogeneration power plant pending construction by Calaveras Healthy Impact Product Solutions on an abandoned lumber mill site in Wilseyville.
The next phase of the project will be a timber harvest, which will be done on a separate contract.
McGreevy said that after the brush is cleared and the land is accessible, the group will evaluate reforesting the landscape with a predominance of ponderosa pine, a mix of sugar pine, Douglas fir and potentially some redwood.
BLM aims to conduct regular prescribed burns of the area once the mulch has decayed and the understory has grown back a few feet, which could take seven to 10 years.
A brief history
The project site was likely once a mixed conifer forest or a more open area populated by oaks and a little bit of understory, probably being burnt on a regular basis by American Indians, according to Monte Kawahara, the unit forester for BLM’s Mother Lode Office.
Due to a century of fire suppression and intensive logging operations, followed by a lack of any logging for decades, the historically fire-adaptive ecosystem is now a massive tinder box choked with overcrowded trees and dense ladder fuels, Kawahara said.
“We got really good at putting out every fire just because it was a perceived threat to immediate safety and timber industry resources, but that allowed the fuel to get so big that even if we just let it go back to nature, it would burn too hot,” Kawahara said on the project site. “So mechanically thinning the forest is a necessary step to saving the larger trees that would be killed if a large fire rolled through this unnatural fuel load.”
Treating the area has been a priority for residents along the Highway 26 corridor in northeast Calaveras County for the past few years, especially with the 2015 Butte Fire burned into homeowners’ memories. Many surrounding communities narrowly escaped the massive blaze.
“This project was prompted by the Butte Fire that burned up the Mokelumne Canyon from Highway 49 before it was stopped deep in the South Fork of the Mokelumne Canyon below Glencoe,” McGreevy wrote in his first grant application. “Had it continued up the North, Middle and South Fork Canyons of the Mokelumne River, it might have devastated the entire watershed, the communities of Rail Road Flat, Wilseyville, West Point, Pine Grove and Pioneer and threatened the upcountry industrial and (Forest Service) timberlands.”
After the gradual collapse of the logging industry dating back to the 1970s, BLM staff and funding were cut, thereby significantly delaying maintenance on millions of acres of now-overgrown, high-fire-risk areas across the country.
In the Mother Lode region, there are 238,000 acres of BLM land, many of which present the same fire risk.
“Logging subsidized the costs (of fire prevention),” Kawahara said. “It’s a tool that comes with its good and bad. There’s a lot of people on either side not willing to recognize the nuance. When people abuse the (fuels management) tool, people see the abusers and make everything off-limits. Sometimes it’s necessary and sometimes it’s not. Like with most important issues, it depends.”
Compounded by hotter and drier weather and a century of fire suppression, past logging operations in the Mokelumne watershed demanded too much of the land and left an abandoned brush field that opened up the canopy.
After the area was clear-cut in the early 1960s, BLM planted hundreds of pine trees for more timber harvesting, but the effort failed due to lack of funding for maintenance. In addition to inattention, the planting practices of the time created a monoculture of even-aged, tightly spaced ponderosa pines, lacking the stand diversity needed to fend off beetles, disease and drought. While planting a monoculture ponderosa pine forest at the time was done for efficiency of timber harvests, the unintended result was a recipe for widespread tree mortality and extreme fire behavior, according to Kawahara.
“Having one species to harvest in rows was cheaper – all these logs would be the same size, easy to harvest and the mill would be happy because the product is consistent,” Kawahara said, explaining the industry perspective at the time. “The problem is a monoculture is susceptible to beetles and fire, so if it burns in a certain state, the whole forest is going to burn in that state. Species diversity is hurt because you don’t have a variety of plants in different stages for birds, beetles and bugs to maintain their niche in the cycle. There are population booms and busts. You put all these unnatural monoculture ponderosa forests all throughout the Sierra, sometimes even in places where there wasn’t a forest before and then don’t manage the thick vegetation, it lowers the water table in the ground. Older trees that are still around that would’ve survived a drought are struggling more than they would have if the understory had been thinned out by small fires because their roots can’t reach a water source. Everything suffers from the cascading effects.”
Forced to compete for nutrients and water, many of the pines died off, were unable to make enough pitch to fight off the beetle epidemic, or were unable to reach full growth. Without the shade of older, larger pines, a dense and highly flammable manzanita forest sprouted up and outcompeted much of the vegetation around it.
“We already artificially tipped the scale,” Kawahara said. As bleak as a logged landscape may look temporarily, “We’ve got to do this necessary destruction in areas where there are houses, and it will additionally protect the areas the public wants to keep looking natural.”
Kawahara was a wildland firefighter for the agency for six years, and has been the Mother Lode unit forester for the past four years.
He’s the only forester overseeing forest health and fuels-reduction projects on BLM land in nine Central California counties stretching from Nevada County in the north to Mariposa County down south in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
On top of being understaffed and underfunded, the agency is restricted from implementing mechanical treatments during certain times of the year due to a variety of factors.
Working in rainy weather is prohibited since equipment can cause damage to the soil. During bird nesting season – March to September – a wildlife biologist is required to survey for any bird nests and flag off locations. For this project, that required navigating, and sometimes crawling through dense patches of manzanita. But perhaps the most notable restriction is that BLM staff cannot work any time during fire season, which typically stretches from June through November or longer, depending on weather conditions.
Even though there are similar projects taking place on BLM land throughout the country, this one in particular is unique because BLM is working with a forest collaborative, the Amador-Calaveras Consensus Group, which is made up of many different stakeholders, Kawahara said. The nonprofit CHIPS plans to use the harvested material locally, bringing jobs and infrastructure to the area, he added.
Kawahara and others hope the project can be used as a template to expedite fuel-reduction work in the region that balances public safety and forest health.
“Environmental groups, logging companies, Cal Fire, USFS and local governments collaborating, that model itself is still pretty rare, so that’s what makes this a significant flagship of this model to follow,” Kawahara said. With a forest collaborative at the table, “it makes projects themselves go forward more quickly, reduces government costs and litigation costs and gives more ownership to the locals over public lands. A mentor once told me that forestry is not about trees, it’s about people, and this project is a good example of that.”