Rim Fire reforestation plan OK’d three years after blaze

By Alex MacLean / The Union Democrat

Published Aug 18, 2016 at 06:46PM

Three years to the day after the start of the 2013 Rim Fire that charred more than 400 square miles of the Central Sierra Nevada, the U.S. Forest Service officially signed off on a plan to reforest about 10 percent of the burned area.

Stanislaus National Forest Supervisor Jeanne Higgins signed the record of decision Wednesday afternoon that will allow reforestation work to begin over the next year, the service announced in a press release.

“I am pleased to announce that my decision, based on community input and referred to as the ‘Community Alternative,’ will help create a fire resilient mixed conifer forest that contributes to an ecologically healthy and resilient landscape rich in biodiversity,” Higgins said in a written statement.

The devastating blaze that also destroyed 11 homes was first reported about 3:25 p.m. Aug. 17, 2013, as a small wildfire burning on the south canyon wall of the Clavey River, about five miles west of Lumsden bridge.

Over the next several weeks, the fire became the third-largest in California’s recorded history after burning through 257,000 acres. About 154,000 acres were Forest Service lands.

Maria Benech of the Forest Service, team leader for the Rim Fire reforestation project, said the overall plan covers a total of about 48,000 acres of the burned area.

About 25,000 acres are planned for reforestation, 13,000 acres for thinning of existing plantations that survived the blazed, 5,700 acres for noxious weed eradication, and 3,800 acres for deer habitat enhancement, she said.

The press release and Benech both commended the involvement of Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions, a collaborative group that includes loggers, environmentalists and business interests.

Benech said members of YSS participated in all of the workshops and meetings held by the service while developing the plan, providing valuable input that helped create a stronger plan. The group previously helped the Forest Service with a salvage logging plan that was challenged in court by out-of-county environmentalists.

“When we went to court, the judges ruled in our favor because they knew we had a lot of community involvement and support,” she said of how YSS has helped the service through the post-fire recovery process.

John Buckley, one of the leaders of YSS and executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center in Twain Harte, said he and others from his center have spent countless hours over the past several years scouring the Rim Fire area to gain a better understanding of the damage than even the Forest Service itself.

One of the recent observations Buckley has come across over the past year is that many of the trees that survived the initial fire are now dying or dead due to drought and bark beetles, leaving even less hope for those areas to naturally regenerate.

About 35 percent of the Rim Fire area, or more than 90,000 acres, burned at such a high severity that little to nothing survived. Some scientists called the destruction unprecedented at the time, because most large wildfires in the past typically saw 5 to 8 percent of the area burned at high severity.

Buckley said he and the center strongly supported the reforestation plan in order to restore the forest to as close to its previous condition as possible.

“Without reforestation, many of the hot burn areas will simply never be forest in our lifetime,” he said. “They’ll simply be converted into brush fields, weeds, non-native grasses and other plants, rather than being the forests that are so important for water values, tourist values and wildlife.”

One frustration for Buckley and others is the length of time it took to get to this point. Another is the fact that only about 1,100 acres will be reforested over the next year due to prep work and other requirements before planting can begin.

However, Buckley said members of the YSS team are still pleased to see something getting started.

“Our center and the local interests in YSS, which include the timber industry, business interests and others, have all been wanting the Forest Service to get this going,” he said. “We’re grateful and we’re applauding.”

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.


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