Clusters of parched pines compete for water and nutrients throughout the South Fork (SF) Mokelumne River watershed near Glencoe.
Pine needles rest atop a dense tangle of mountain misery blanketing the forest floor.
An understory dense with manzanita looms above the shrubbery – ladder fuels to feed the dried canopy.
More than 900 acres of unmanaged Bureau of Land Management (BLM) forestland in the SF Mokelumne River watershed haven’t burned in over 100 years, but a single spark could ignite the next Butte Fire, according to Calaveras Amador (CalAm) Forestry Team Volunteer and Grant Writer Pat McGreevy.
“It’s a tinderbox,” McGreevy says, adding, “all of these overcrowded trees, dense ladder fuels and flammable ground cover are the recipe for wildland fire.”
Before the age of fire suppression, the land used to burn naturally every 10-plus years, according to McGreevy.
After the “Big Burn” ravaged three million acres in North Idaho and Western Montana in 1910, the U.S. Forest Service took strong precautions to suppress wildfires across the nation. This disrupted the natural burn cycle of many forested landscapes, and resulted in overstocked forests and a build-up of woody fuels.
In 2016, McGreevy started writing a grant proposal to secure state funding for a forest-thinning project to treat the 912 acres of BLM land, in addition to 500 acres of surrounding private and Calaveras County Water District parcels in the SF Mokelumne River watershed.
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 NE Calaveras County.
The fiscal agent for the grant proposal is Calaveras Healthy Impact Product Solutions (CHIPS), “a local nonprofit founded 14 years ago to reduce chronic unemployment in northeast Calaveras County by providing jobs in forest restoration.”
The general goal is to increase forest resiliency to fire, drought and beetle infestation while sequestering and storing greenhouse gases.
The CalAm Team, a small group of retired foresters and volunteers, drafted prescriptions for silvicultural (the growing and cultivation of trees) and fuels treatments in the project area based on Forest Service Research and Development guidelines. Prescriptions include removal of a majority of suppressed trees as well as insect infested and killed trees. In addition, understory surface and ladder fuels will be removed by mastication (the grinding of woody vegetation with machinery). After treatment, some areas will be planted with quality seedling stock.
Additionally, mechanical mastication will be used on areas with gentle slopes and hand treatment on those where slopes exceed 30 percent.
The project area was surveyed for environmental impacts on botany, wildlife and cultural resources.
Contractors will be limited to working in winter months so as to avoid fire season and bird nesting season.
Speaking generally about mechanical forest thinning projects, Adjunct Professor of Biology at Northern Arizona University Nancy Muleady-Mecham, Ph.D. detailed that impacts to local ecology could include physical disruption to habitat as well as noise pollution, especially for ground nesting birds such as juncos and quails, in addition to alligator lizards and a variety of insects living in mountain misery.
“Depending on the altitude, the ecosystem and its inhabitants, mechanical thinning should occur when the impact can be minimized, such as winter months,” Muleady-Mecham said.
Muleady-Mecham emphasized that the most ecologically conscious treatment in chaparral areas is prescribed fire, however with so much urbanization, that is difficult to accomplish.
“Mechanical thinning, the manual removal of trees and brush, is a partial substitute for fire,” Muleady-Mecham said. “It only accomplishes part of the mission that fire brings to a fire-adapted ecosystem. Recycling nutrients, opening the forest canopy, controlling parasites (mistletoe) and insect pests (bark beetle) and making a more wettable soil are additional benefits of fire.”
A new model for managing BLM land
Driving down an old logging road on BLM property northeast of Glencoe, McGreevy points to multiple derelict pine plantations choked with manzanita.
McGreevy explains that the overstocked, highly combustible plantations were seeded for timber harvesting by BLM nearly 60 years ago and haven’t been thinned since.
McGreevy says that foothills residents have been disappointed with the lack of maintenance on BLM property for several years, especially since unmanaged BLM land played an important role in the early spread of the 2015 Butte Fire.
The problem is that the agency has been chronically understaffed and underfunded by the federal government for generations.
“It’s a gridlock situation, and we are trying to break that,” McGreevy says.
For an example of the lack of staffing, the BLM Mother Lode Field Office only has one forester employed to supervise maintenance projects on BLM land in 14 central California counties stretching from Nevada County in the north to Mariposa County to the south within the Sierra Nevada foothills.
Via grant proposals, McGreevy and CalAm Foresters Jan Bray and John Heissenbuttel are now providing significant funding for BLM land management projects in both Calaveras and Amador Counties.
“This is a new model on financing the management of BLM land,” McGreevy explains. “We’re making progress, but slowly. We’ve got to be patient.”
Getting landowners on board
McGreevy reached out to 31 landowners asking for a right of entry form to permit logging contractors on their property, though he was only able to receive permission from 23 landowners. The rest either never answered (many homeowners live in the area part-time) or were apprehensive to allow a contractor onto their property.
It is disappointing that one resident may prioritize cleaning up their land, but it wouldn’t make a difference if a fire started on a neighboring property full of hazardous fuels and jumped the road, McGreevy argues.
“It’s a community thing,” McGreevy says, coasting alongside a property choked with manzanita trees reaching over a fence line. “It’s unethical for this person to keep his land this way. The county needs an ordinance to encourage all of our landowners to clean their property beyond the current 100 foot clearance requirement around their house.”
Ebbetts Pass Fire District enforces an ordinance to require property owners to mitigate hazardous fuels on unimproved lots, although it’s mostly focused on education, rather than fining, according to Fire Chief Mike Johnson.
“We want to draw nexuses to why the work is so important given the devastating wildfires California has seen in the past several years,” Johnson says. “Everybody’s got to do their part. There’s a provision that takes it going before a judge and paying fines, but that’s a rare exception.”
Johnson added that outreach has been very effective, and that most people are progressive and want to get the work done.
Either the County Board of Supervisors or an elected fire district board of directors could review and adopt such an ordinance within its jurisdiction, according to Johnson.
One issue is that many landowners in McGreevy’s project area are retired and unable to maintain the land themselves.
“Everybody wants to retire up here,” McGreevy explains. “They think, ‘I don’t have to mow the lawn anymore,’ and while that’s true they now need a chainsaw.”
After the project is completed, timber will be shipped to a Sierra Pacific Industries lumber mill in Sonora, and the unsaleable wood will be chipped for biomass to be redistributed across the project area as a mulch.
Redistributing the biomass to the ground would increase the success of the initial attack by first responders, whereas a canopy fire would likely require an aerial attack.
Mulching also has a range of other benefits such as retaining water and nutrients in the soil, reducing erosion and suppressing the resprouting of brush.
“Once this is done, we’ll have earned ourselves 10 maintenance-free years,” McGreevy says.
McGreevy says the biomass may also be gasified at a cogeneration power plant pending construction by CHIPS on an abandoned lumber mill site in Wilseyville.
Gasification would achieve a 95 percent reduction in emissions as compared to those of fuels burning in a wildfire, according to McGreevy.
McGreevy says that future maintenance of the land will likely be prescribed burning once the mulch has decayed and the understory has grown back a few feet, which could take 10 to 15 years.
McGreevy is also seeking grant funding to repair two breached culverts that have eroded the Indian River Road west of Independence Cemetery.
The culverts were releasing sediment into Independence Gulch and compromising access for forest management and emergency vehicles.
To double as a drainage pipe for the Independence Gulch watershed and a spawning area for rainbow trout, McGreevy has proposed that BLM install a culvert with an open bottom to allow fish to travel up and down the stream, which feeds the Mokelumne River.
McGreevy was also hoping to secure funding to install rolling dips and outside drainage ditches along severely eroded sections of the old logging road in order to keep runoff and sediment from conveying directly to the South Fork Mokelumne River rather than watershed soil.
“This whole acreage down here is not getting wetted,” McGreevy says, pointing to the downslope side of the road. “It’s like taking your garden and only watering half of it.”
Redirecting water to the area would also reduce the risk of wildfire.
McGreevy hopes that BLM will reinvest revenues from timber harvesting (projected $1 million) to repair the sections of eroded road through a stewardship agreement.
“We’re trying to get it in stone that we the community put this project together and we want to keep it maintained,” McGreevy says.
All the project is waiting on now is a BLM permit from the BLM Motherlode Office.
Once that is acquired, CHIPS will put out the request for proposals for contractors to start work.
With millions of dollars in SB 901 state funding for forest thinning projects now available and hundreds of thousands of high fire risk acres to be treated in the county alone, McGreevy, Bray and Heissenbuttel have enough work to last them a lifetime.