Forest Service to host Big Jack East Project meeting Monday | SierraSun.com

Forest Service to host Big Jack East Project meeting Monday

When blue markings started showing up around trees in the roughly 2,059-acre area surrounded by the neighborhoods of Sierra Meadows, Ponderosa Palisades, and Martis Camp and Northstar California Resort, residents of the area immediately became concerned.

The markings stem from the U.S. Forest Service's Big Jack East Project, which calls for the thinning of trees in the area along Sawtooth Ridge in order to improve the health and resiliency of the forest, while also increasing the Forest Service and other fire agencies ability to protect neighboring homes.

The Forest Service began looking into the project in 2014, and held public comment on the issue in 2015. The department then released its preliminary environmental assessment last March, prompting an outcry from local residents.

"I have 38 years with the Forest Service in fire fuels and natural resource management," said resident Kathy Murphy. "So I see thinning of the forest as a really important step toward fire hazard reduction and the design of that thinning is important."

THE PLAN

Under the Forest Service's plan the roughly 1,883 acres designated as threat zone will be thinned and masticated. Murphy and other residences concern with the project resides in the Forest Service's plan to use a highly site-specific method of thinning known as variable density thinning. The result of which is a heterogeneous environment that will include open spaces, and also some dense clusters of trees.

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"What that really means is that we're really trying to break up continuity. These naturally existing gaps are really important. We know from research and from looking at the past, these gaps, if placed across a large landscape, really mitigate and reduce the amount of fire and spread of fire," said Vegetation Management Officer Mike Cartmill.

"They can also increase wildlife habitat and increase forest health. They allow openings to where more pine seedlings can germinate and propagate, where it's less likely that the fir, which we don't typically want as much here, will not propagate as much because there is so much light."

Firs typically grow better in the shade, according to Cartmill, and present a risk because their branches often create a fuel ladders, allowing for flames to climb up the trees and reach their crowns.

"Once the canopy is toasted the tree is dead," Cartmill said. There's nothing we can do."

A canopy fire is also much more dangerous, and more difficult to contain than brushfires, said Cartmill.

Murphy and other residents' contention with the proposed variable density thinning is that the open areas will eventually become filled with brush, creating possibly an even more severe risk of fire reaching the neighboring communities.

"We're all worried about our houses and we do want some work done out there, but we realize that if they cut that much we're just going to have a vast brushy area out there, and what does that do?" said resident Astrid Baumgartner.

"The problem we see is once you cut down these trees it's too late. If you cut these trees down they're gone and they're gone for the next two generations.

"That defense zone should be treated as good as possible. It would make me feel better and everybody feel better if that defense zone was treated properly."

Defense zone vs. Threat zone

The Big Jack East project is broken up into two zones. The roughly 558-acre defense zone butts up against the local communities and extends a quarter of a mile outward, while the rest of the project falls under the threat zone.

The Forest Service plans on utilizing a more uniform, traditional approach when it comes to thinning out the defense zone, removing trees roughly every 20 feet.

"With the defense zone, up against the houses, we start to get back to that more even spacing," said the department's Joe Flannery. "More of what I would call the more old school way the Forest Service used to do things, but also, it has its place."

The defense zone is where the Forest Service plans on implementing newer techniques like variable density thinning to help create a healthy forest.

"What we're talking about here is a heterogeneous landscape. There are places we can go look at where this area obviously has withstood disease, and fire. "What are its characteristics?" said Flannery.

"And really what the biggest characteristic is, is this heterogeneity. And that is some big trees, some openings, and some clumps of dense trees."

Those open areas, if maintained, should help slow fires from spreading according to Cartmill.

"Fires typically, if it's open enough, would creep through the landscape," he said. "If (large pines) were dotted around the landscape and fire was allowed to do its natural thing, these trees are perfectly suited and adaptable to that — thick bark, no low branches."

The Forest Service's goal in the threat area is to return the forest to a more natural state. Currently there are too many trees in the area, according to the department, making the entire forest more susceptible to fire, diseases and drought.

Trees targeted for removal have mostly been firs, but any trees that are unhealthy, misshapen, or too close together will be removed.

Another factor in thinning the area, is attempting to reduce tree deaths by insects. Larger spaces between trees, according to the department, should help spare more trees from insects by limiting access via touching branches.

"Diversity is key from everything tree diameters," Cartmill said. "You want some small, you want some big, to the size of the openings, you want some smaller and bigger ones, to tree species."

Tree removal

The Forest Services project calls for the mechanical removal of the trees through a timber sale.

The service will look utilize a stewardship contract authority, according to Cartmill, which will keep all the funds from timber sales on the project.

"Every tree that is removed and sold, we get to keep the value of those trees on this project," said Cartmill. "It's huge. It doesn't go back to the treasury; it doesn't go back to salaries. What it goes back to is masticating this stuff, is taking the biomass to (cogeneration) plant to be used for electricity, it's fixing roads, improving drainage, doing all of the things that we always need to do in a timber sale."

The plan from there will be to have a masticator come through and remove all of the fuels and smaller brush from the forest floor.

"It will all be masticated. It will look like a park, but yeah the fear lies, five, six, seven, ten years later, then what happens?," said Flannery. "I can totally see the public's concern there."

The Forest Service has been doing work in the area since 2010.

Next Step

After much noise from local residents, the Forest Service created another 30-day public comment period on May 5.

In the meantime the department will host a public open house and meeting at the Truckee Tahoe Airport on Monday, May 14. A public field trip to the area will also be held in the day following the open house.

For more information visit data.ecosystem-management.org/nepaweb/nepa_project_exp.php?project=49215.

Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Truckee Sun. Contact him at jscacco@truckeesun.com.