Forest thinning proposal fuels controversy at Big Bear Lake

For decades, the thousands of acres of undeveloped public forest north of Big Bear Lake was considered the cherished “wildness” of the mountain resort, just a two-hour drive from Los Angeles.

But worsening drought, the US Forest Service warned, has turned the jungle landscape into a trash can that poses a direct threat to the community of the San Bernardino Mountains, home to 5,500 residents year-round, but grew to more than 100,000 people between July 4 and Labor Day.

Now, to reduce fire risk, the agency is seeking approval for one of the largest forest thinning operations ever conducted in Southern California – the removal of tens of thousands of Jeffrey pine, fir and fir trees. White, juniper and oak on 13,000 acres are considered overgrown, unhealthy and susceptible to drought and disease.

The proposed Big Bear North Landscape Restoration Project also calls for the construction of 47 new miles of e-bike trails in the area, a tactic aimed at attracting enough outdoor-loving urbanites to ease congestion in the area. south of the lake, where tourism is both the lifeline and source of the community.
Each year, about 6 million visitors keep the wheel of commerce spinning behind the rustic facades of ski shops, gift shops, restaurants and vacation rentals. They also bring with them urban-style traffic jams, environmental destruction, and illegal campfires in the surrounding San Bernardino National Forest.

People standing next to a lake with green hills on the horizon

A US Forest Service plan calls for removing tens of thousands of trees from 13,000 acres north of the Great Bear Valley to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires and create more than 40 miles of e-bike trails.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

However, the proposal has caused controversy in the community as conservationists, local businesses and private property owners argue over the potential economic and ecological impact of the project.

“These are big conundrums and this plan is an attempt to strike a balance between conflicting interests,” said Councilmember Randall Putz of Big Bear Lake.

“No matter what you do in a situation like this, some people won’t like it,” says Putz, who with his wife, Beth Wheat, runs a local wildlife supply store. there.

The controversy highlights the difficulty facing drought-stricken mountain communities across California and across the West, who trade their Alpine image and find themselves struggling to prepare for the storm. the worst thing.

According to the National Wildfires Coordination Group, California’s 2020 and 2021 fire seasons have the highest number of acres burned and the second-highest in state history.

Holcomb Valley on the north side of Big Bear Lake

This Holcomb Valley area is part of a U.S. Forest Service plan to remove tens of thousands of trees north of Big Bear Lake to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“Protecting communities from wildfires is a top priority,” the Forest Service said in the brochure for the project, which, if approved, could be underway in the fall.

It says: “Forest health projects will be undertaken to remove dead trees and reduce stand density, which will lead to a pattern of low intensity wildfires and more natural outbreaks. ,” it said. “Additionally, these projects will focus on returning forest ecosystems to a healthier condition.”

But local activists and environmental groups say the problem lies in the details.

Allowing mining and e-bike access, they say, would damage the very thing that makes the Great Bear Valley so special – the largely untouched national forest north of the lake.

The landscape is home to a significant number of species including flying squirrels, mountain lions, wood rats, acorn woodpeckers, skinning birds, and rarely seen creatures such as spotted owls and one snakes called rubber boas – both shy and nocturnal animals, preferring wooden areas.

Ed Wallace, left, and Sandy Steers, in Big Bear

Ed Wallace, left, conservation president of the Sierra Club’s Big Bear group, and Sandy Steers, executive director of the Great Bear Valley, oppose a US Forest Service plan to call for the relocation of tens of thousands of trees from 13,000 acres north of the Great Bear Valley.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“Creating a healthier forest by cutting down almost all of its trees? — that doesn’t make sense,” said Sandy Steers, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of Big Bear Valley.

Ed Wallace, a naturalist and conservation president of the local Sierra Club group, laments the proposal to build a new network of trails in the area as “real bad news.”

“There are already a lot of good trails out there in the woods for e-bikers to follow to their hearts,” he said. “All this plan will do is expand the massive construction that will disturb wildlife habitat for years to come.”

Then there’s Chad Hanson, a forest ecologist with the nonprofit John Muir Project and a resident of the Great Bear Valley, who is urging the Forest Service to shift its wildfire strategy to a “starts from scratch” strategy. indoors and out”. That means using fire-safe roofing and ventilation nets indoors and trimming vegetation within a 100-foot radius of the residential area, among other things.

Hanson picked up a handful of dry pine needles and twigs. “This is what led to the bushfires,” he said. “It’s not,” he added, nodding toward the 200-year-old Jeffrey pine.

The agency plans to use a combination of manual vehicles, bulldozers, and crushers, and when weather, terrain, and location of personal property are appropriate, prescribed burns.

Chad Hanson, a research ecologist with the John Muir . Project

Chad Hanson, an ecologist with the John Muir Project, says the greatest danger of a wildfire disaster comes from debris on forest floors, not trees.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Of particular interest are areas with hundreds of mature trees per acre and a small number of young conifers, sage and manzanita trees. By comparison, the agency said, a healthier, safer forest near roads and homes would have 17 such trees per acre.

In the event of a fire, it said, the underlings would create what federal rangers call a “fuel ladder” that would carry the flames into the canopy, triggering a massive blaze that could roar into the trees. community, trapping tens of thousands of people trying to flee in vehicles and on foot.

Some residents are wary of the federal government’s ability to protect communities, nestled in a valley 6,800 feet above sea level in the San Bernardino Mountains. That distrust was underscored in March 2004 when a regulatory fire spiraled out of control south of Big Bear Lake, prompting the evacuation of two ski resorts.

In that case, firefighters initially hoped to be able to benefit wildlife by creating open areas in dense areas of the manzanita. The controlled fire is also expected to give firefighters better access to any bushfires during the upcoming fire season, authorities said.

The Forest Service’s proposal comes amid a years-long push by civic and business leaders to change Big Bear from a primarily lower-cost weekend resort to one where Families and upper-middle-class professionals can spend a week or more.

Currently, e-bike rentals are waiting to make landfall on the north side of the lake after the dust from the thinning has settled and new trails have been installed.

The clearance plan includes half a dozen parking areas along the lake’s north shore for hikers, mountain bikers, and e-bikes looking to explore the treated landscape.

Dallas Goldsmith, a longtime resident of Big Bear Lake and the owner of an e-bike rental business.

Goldsmith is a participant in the local adoption program, contributing $3,000 annually to maintain and improve a 1-mile stretch of trail in the public forest on the north side of the lake.

A business owner stands selling e-bikes for rent

Dallas Goldsmith, a local bike rental business owner, supports the Big Bear North Landscape Restoration Project.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Meanwhile, the big question asked by first-time customers to his Goldsmith’s Sports store is: “Is there an e-bike trail around the entire valley?”

“Unfortunately, the answer to that question is ‘No,’” Goldsmith, 47, said. “I am looking forward to the time when I can direct clients to the trails along the north side of the lake, away from the crowds and surrounded by nature, including their famous bald eagles. I.”

He was referring to the only remaining family of bald eagles nesting in the Great Bear Valley: Jackie and Shadow, and their baby, Spirit.

What makes these bald eagles so special? A solar-powered camera and sound system tracked their daily activities in a pine tree nest overlooking the north coast village of Fawnskin, giving them the charisma that the Dream politician.

On Memorial Day, Big Bear Lake replaced the annual fireworks display for the first time with a quiet “drone show” to avoid disturbing Spirit’s naps.

The next morning, the 3-month-old Spirit made its first flight out of the nest, a move that die-hard fans say could mean the species is one step closer to recolonization. by Big Bear Valley.

Critics of the project argue that it could not have been done without dire consequences for those raptors. That’s because, among other things, it calls for building a new path that runs directly through their nesting grounds.

“It’s a stupid idea,” Steers said, “and we’re going to fight it.”

That kind of talk suggests a tough negotiation ahead.

“I believe that accommodation can be created for our bald eagle family,” says Putz. “But this is hard work – real life and death matters. So in the face of the outcry, I think this plan will probably work out.” Forest thinning proposal fuels controversy at Big Bear Lake

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