The Monterey Ranger District of the Los Padres National Forest has proposed the construction of a series of fuelbreaks both inside and outside of the Ventana Wilderness. Entitled the Strategic Community Fuelbreak Improvement Project, the stated purpose of the fuelbreaks is to “enhance protection for at-risk communities from fire.”
The fuelbreaks are described as “… strategically located, wide blocks or strips on which a heavy fuel loading has been changed to one of lower fuel volume and reduced flammability.” Conversely, a firebreak or fireline has had all vegetation removed. Generally, the footprint of the fuelbreaks would fall on ridgetops where firelines have been constructed by bulldozers during previous wildfires. The proposed fuelbreaks would serve as anchor points to permit burnout operations that create “black lines” which could slow or halt the spread of wildfire during an incident. This “indirect attack” method is more frequently employed than “direct attack,” with firefighter safety an important consideration.
The Proposed Action would establish the fuelbreaks over ten years on approximately 7.5 miles inside wilderness and 16.6 miles outside of wilderness. Depending on fuelbreak design, there is the possibility that another 2 miles inside wilderness could be subject to fuelbreak construction.
The Forest Service proposes that fuelbreak construction be accomplished within wilderness using chainsaws with the possibility that fuelbreak maintenance every three to five years would also utilize chainsaws. Outside of wilderness, in addition to chainsaws, machine thinning, piling, mastication and chipping would be used.
The Proposed Action has met with a mixed reaction by wilderness supporters. Some believe that chainsaw use or fuelbreak construction will lead to the widespread implementation of motorized equipment and a weakening of the Wilderness Act. Others believe that pre-suppression fuelbreak construction would reduce the many miles of bulldozed firelines created inside wilderness during major wildfires. The Wilderness Act of 1964 speaks to the use of motorized equipment and “installations” such as fuelbreaks inside wilderness:
Except as specifically provided for in this Act, and subject to existing private rights, there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act and, except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.
Before the Forest Service can implement its Proposed Action, the “minimum requirements” must be analyzed and documented by a process known as a Minimum Requirements Analysis (MRA). Briefly, the MRA process first determines whether or not any action is actually required. If determined to be necessary for the purposes of the Wilderness Act or subsequent legislation, it directs what the minimum activity would be. For instance, the minimum activity could influence design criteria such as fuelbreak width and the “minimum tool” used to accomplish the task. While chainsaws are proposed, the minimum tool could be determined to be traditional tools, such as brush hooks and cross-cut saws.
The scoping phase of the NEPA process was completed in 2014. A Draft Environmental Impact Statement, along with a Preferred Alternative, has not been released. The VWA has already provided scoping comments and is committed to guiding this process toward a conclusion that protects wilderness values. Watch for updates at this site and in future issues of Ventana Wilderness Watch, the official newsletter of the VWA.