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Criticism, extended comment deadline for US Forest Service's Los Padres project

From the USFS plan: Visual perspective before and after treatment for the conifer stands as proposed.

The US Forest Service plans to help prevent wildfires in the Los Padres National Forest by cutting down trees and chaparral across a 755-acre area of the forest. The Central Coast’s congressman and environmental groups say the project is unchecked and unnecessary.

Forest Service managers are expediting the project—located on a ridge leading up to Reyes Peak, popularly known as Pine Mountain—using what’s known as a categorical exclusion, bypassing an environmental impact review because they do not see the project having environmental effects.

“It’s a project that we don’t think is entirely necessary and they’re using this fast-tracking to push it through the environmental review process as quickly as possible,” said Bryant Baker, conservation director for Los Padres ForestWatch. The group is concerned about an ongoing trend of the forest service using categorical exclusions to speed up projects.

In 2018, President Trump issued an executive orderthat directed federal agencies to streamline projects by using categorical exclusions wherever possible. A 2019 memo from the national forest service to regional directors echoes this directive.

Gregory Thompson is in charge of the Reyes peak project for Los Padres National Forest.

“Categorical exemptions don’t mean that you don’t look at and examine the area,” Thompson said. “What it means is that you have a certain type of activity that you’ve looked at quite a bit, and in the past those type of activities have demonstrated that there’s no extraordinary circumstances that would lead to a significant environmental impact.”

ForestWatch’s Baker said the environmental analysis that comes with a categorical exclusion is not enough. He also points to a fuel break assessment the forest service released ranking the maintenance priority for different regions of the Los Padres forest. Reyes Peak is ranked 118 on that list, which Baker said brings into question the need for fast-tracking the project.

Richard Halsey from the California Chaparral Institute argues the project would harm the very habitat it aims to protect, and may actually cause flammable weeds to grow in the damaged soil.

In addition to environmental groups, local Chumash tribes are concerned about the environmental impact of the project and the lack of tribal input in the process. Maura Sullivan is a member of the Coastal band of the Chumash Nation. She said state-recognized tribes like hers don’t get the same rights or recognition as federally-recognized tribes.

“Not having federal recognition puts us at a disadvantage for certain things, and so this is one of those things,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan said tribal members are trying to figure out their rights with regard to this project—and that the forest service has done a bare minimum in terms of local outreach.

The forest service recently extended the public comment periodfor the project after a request to do so by Central Coast congressman Salud Carbajal. The public now has until August 14 to voice opinions on the forest service’s Reyes Peak plan.

Sean Flannelly is a journalist and student at University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He previously reported for KPFA Radio in Berkeley, California, and served as his student newspaper's sole podcast editor. Outside of the newsroom, he can be found hiking, climbing and camping his way around California.
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