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Public gets first look at Forest Service’s plan for Sierras

Public gets first look at Forest Service’s plan for Sierras

Sierra and Sequoia National Forests are at epicenter of climate change crisis in the Valley, with four-fifths of state’s dead trees, most of its livestock, 5% of California’s water supply

By Anthony Ferranti
Reporting for The Sun-Gazette

BAKERSFIELD – As devastating wildfires become the new normal for California, the U.S. Forest Service offered the public a first look at its plan to prevent wildfires. The meeting took place on Aug. 20 in Bakersfield, on the southern end of the Sequoia National Forest, the epicenter of tree mortality in the Sierra Nevada.

The Forest Service held a public workshop as part of a 90-day public comment period regarding the revised draft environmental impact statement and forest plans for the Sequoia and Sierra National Forests. The plans deal with priorities for wildfire, wilderness areas, fire management, as well as recreation and other issues. This public comment period ends Sept. 26, 2019. The workshop was one of two consecutive meetings organized and hosted by the U.S. Forest Service. The second was held Aug. 21 in Clovis, Calif. Both meetings were scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m. and end by 8:30 p.m. 

Project Manager Fariba Hamedani began the Aug. 20 workshop by acknowledging that climate change and population growth have had significant impacts on these forests. The revised draft EIS and management plans for both forests had been released back in May of 2016; however, seeing the devastating impacts of severe drought, which created unprecedented tree mortality, the Forest Service decided that the 2016 draft EIS did not reflect the realities on the ground and decided to spend the next three years revising the draft EIS and both management plans. 

According to a statement written by Forest Supervisor Dean Gould and Acting Forest Supervisor Rachael Smith published on the USDA Forest Service website, the Sierra and Sequoia National Forests cover nearly 2.5 million acres generating nearly $150 million in revenue for the livestock, grazing, timber and recreation industries and supplies 5% of California’s water, assisting in the irrigation of the San Joaquin Valley.

The area is also California’s number one concern for fire. Four-fifths of the state’s dead trees are located in the Sequoia and Sierra National Forests, which intersect in northeastern Tulare County. More than a quarter of the trees that have died since the drought began in 2010 are in Tulare County, 25.2 million as of this month’s report, spanning across 831,000 acres. The next highest county is Fresno County at 21.1 million dead trees. 

“We have developed one environmental impact statement for both the Sierra and Sequoia forests, but there are two separate plans for each of the forests,” Hamedani said. Hamedani went on to state that the agency will continue to refine the range of alternatives and of draft plan components based on feedback we receive. She then emphasized that these are only drafts and that they rely on submitted comments in order to make changes to these documents. 

The purpose of these two workshop meetings was to inform and engage with special interest groups and the general public answering questions one-on-one and encouraging the submission of public comments. The atmosphere of the meeting on the 20th was cordial and welcoming, unlike a town hall format where representatives make a presentation followed by people voicing their comments and concerns within a specified amount of time. These town hall meetings can degenerate into a tense atmosphere where people with opposing views become combative and attempt to shout down others. On the contrary, this “open house” workshop structure promoted an open dialogue between all in attendance.

The United States Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, published the revised draft forest plans for the Sequoia and Sierra National Forests and a revised draft environmental impact statement on June 28 of this year. The previous management plans, which are over 30-years old, have been amended several times over the last three decades, however Forest Service officials recognize that the social, economic and environmental conditions have dramatically changed.  

Copies of the draft EIS and forest plans are available using this shortened URL, tinyurl.com/r5land, clicking on “Notice of Availability: Draft Management Plans and DEIS” towards the bottom of the page will open the list of PDF documents.

Next, Public Engagement Planer Tasha Lo Porto from the Vallejo Regional Office gave a brief overview of the draft EIS and plans and how to best navigate them. She also provided tips on how to write public comments in the most useful and impactful way. “The most helpful comments offer modifications or corrections to draft environmental statement or the draft plans. But most importantly, why are you recommending that change?” Lo Porto continued, “It’s helpful if you’re providing missing scientific research or what you think are errors in the analysis, especially if you identify why that information represents more relevant or accurate scientific information. And let us know about any parts of the analysis or the plans that are just confusing.” The planning staff believes that the public’s feedback in the formal written comments will help shape the direction of the final plans. 

Sierra Club Senior Campaigns Representative Jenny Binstock was impressed with the turnout and level of engagement, “I commend the Forest Service for creating the opportunity, but in the future, it would be great to see more diverse representation from local communities, as well as support for Spanish language translation.”

When asked how the USFS came to use this workshop format, Forest Supervisor for the Sequoia National Forest & Giant Sequoia National Monument Teresa Benson said, “Planning team leaders suggested this style of workshop to better engage with the public on a more personal level.  Lo Porto mentioned that our Region has seen success with this type of meeting format at other events with a diverse group of special interests.” Benson went on to say, “I personally enjoyed the way this has worked for us at our Forest Plan revision meeting. I would like to pursue using this same style for future meetings.” 

A detailed presentation about how to navigate the draft EIS and management plans and how to best submit helpful comments can be viewed on the U.S. Forest Service web site using this shortened URL: tinyurl.com/y6dkypoc.

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