Suit Forces Temporary Suspension Of The North Fuels Controlled Burn Project In Big Bear Valley

Legal action brought by four environmental groups has interrupted plans by the United States Forest Service to do controlled burns in sections of the San Bernardino Mountains rangers consider to be overgrown with vegetation that could serve as the kindling to trigger a catastrophic wildfire.
The use of fire to fight fire has been put on hold by a ruling from a federal district court judge handed down on August 11. The plaintiffs in the case, The Friends of Big Bear Valley, the John Muir Project, Earth Island Institute and the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society, brought suit to prevent the U.S. Forest Service from proceeding with the North Fuels Project.
According to that suit, the U.S. Forest Service has not exhausted all of its options short of engaging in the clearing of areas in the forest that serve as protective habitat for a number of species. Moreover, the Forest Service’s controlled burn plans are not exactly safe and represent a risk that what is intended as a narrowly focused burn of brush could grow into a major conflagration.“The last time the San Bernardino National Forest took this approach, 199 homes burned down,” said Dr. Chad Hanson, research ecologist with the John Muir Project.
The controlled burns will have consequences that should be addressed in a comprehensive environmental impact report, according to the plaintiffs.
On paper, the North Fuels Project, which is to take place on an expanse on Big Bear Lake’s North Shore, is intended to thin 13,000 acres of forest. If it is done correctly, according to the United States Forest Service, it will greatly reduce the potential that a major fire event could take place and rage out of control with an untold degree of destruction. In addition, the Forest Service’s biologists maintain, the thinning will allow for a balance of flora and fauna that will increase the health of the forest overall.
The Friends of Big Bear Valley, the John Muir Project, Earth Island Institute and the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society, represented by attorney Babak Naficy, maintain the project represents a very real threat to the habitat, in particular, of the bald eagle. Wintertime nesting surveys that were conducted prior to interference by COVID-19 outbreak in 2020 indicated there are multiple bald eagle nests in the area around Big Bear Lake. Even if the controlled burns extend to no more than vegetation in the area, smoke and other impacts of the fires could endanger that habitat, ecologists maintain. Bald eagles are classified as a threatened species under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protections Act.
Further, according to the plaintiffs, the Forest Service has not abided by proper legal and procedural protocols in setting up the controlled burns.
Critics of the way the Forest Service is approaching the matter say more ecological research needs to be conducted. Once the impact of the burns is scientifically calculated, some of the plaintiffs maintain, then measured efforts to thin the forest can be taken.
The plaintiffs want the Forest Service to concentrate its efforts at controlling invasive species rather than native ones, which are in some areas being choked out by invasive plants and insects.
While a successful controlled burn may have, from a certain perspective, a salubrious impact in that it decreases the fuel load, i.e., wood and brush that might contribute to a highly destructive conflagrations, from another perspective that controlled burn might wreak havoc on the nooks and crannies of the forest, the places where certain species proliferate and can safely breed.
Those 13,000 acres involve two unique patches known as the Moonridge Pebble Plain and Baldwin Pebble Plain and an irregular-shaped meadow, frequented by three known rare butterfly species and where no fewer than 16 protect plants are thriving.
The burns, if not carried out in a very closely monitored and limited fashion, could devastate some delicate and vulnerable species, according to botanists and biologists.
The plaintiffs want the Forest Service to do a far more exacting survey of what species exist in the area and define the parameters of the burn that is to take place and enunciate ahead of time the project’s precise goals.
The suit seeks “injunctive relief to ensure that defendants comply with the National Environmental Protection Act and specifically to ensure that defendants and their agents take no further actions toward proceeding with the challenged project.”
Mark Gutglueck

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