Destroyer of Habitat – US Forest Service

Due to a sudden influx of money, a federal agency that had once shown promise of becoming a protector of native chaparral habitat, has become a destroyer. The Los Padres National Forest plans to clear a quarter million acres of habitat, most of which is chaparral.

Why? Because Nature is now seen only as “fuel,” not as living habitat.

We sent in our comments on this heart breaking proposal yesterday morning. Please take a stand for Nature yourself by the end of the day today, Tuesday, January 27 – directions below.

To the US Forest Service,

Our family is sitting on our backyard patio in Escondido, watching a pair of Spotted Towhees enjoying the habitat we’ve created over the past three years. They successfully raised at least one offspring this year. We saw it scampering about looking for food with the help of its parents.

Where once was lawn is now a rich chaparral, sage scrub wonderland. It’s all framed by several Refugio manzanitas (Arctostaphylos refugioensis) that have really taken to our place. They outgrow and out-flower any other Arctostaphylos species we’ve planted. That seems odd because they’re a relatively rare species native to the coastal ridge line above Gaviota, just west of Santa Barbara. We’re looking forward to this January when the white, urn-shaped blossoms will be covering the ground with chaparral snow.

I got to thinking about the temporary reprieve our lawsuit provided in 2017 to the Refugio manzanitas that were scheduled to be masticated by US Forest Service grinding machines along the Gaviota ridge. We knew at the time the reprieve would be transitory. That’s the way many environmental protection lawsuits work – they merely delay.

The inevitable occurred during the 2021 Alisal Fire. Dozers ripped out and crushed many of the manzanitas we had protected. Much of the destruction was for naught as the fire had already moved quickly toward the ocean. But dozers are not easily stopped once the fire brigade arrives. Ironically, the fire appears to have started along the old ridgeline fuel break, likely in the flammable, weedy grasses that invade such disturbed places. The same situation occurred during the 2019 Cave Fire above Santa Barbara. We cited this key risk factor in our 2017 lawsuit – fuel breaks create conditions more conducive to ignitions.

And now the Refugio manzanitas that remain along the ridge face yet another threat, as do tens of thousands of acres of chaparral throughout the Los Padres National Forest, with the newly proposed LPNF Ecological Restoration Project; the use of Orwellian doublespeak is common in land management policy.

We had hoped this destructive approach to chaparral was a thing of the past.

Chaparral as a Natural Resource

Over the past decade we had been encouraged by the USFS’s recognition of the chaparral’s value, the threats the system faces, and of the need to restore native shrublands in areas that have been compromised by excessive fire and other disturbances like over-grazing.

In 2011, the new USFS Leadership Intent regarding ecological restoration for Region 5 stated,

There is an additional crisis taking place in our Southern California Forests as an unprecedented number of human-caused fires have increased fire frequency to the extent that fire-adapted chaparral can no longer survive and is being replaced with non-native annual grasses at an alarm­ing rate. To counter these trends, forest managers will need to significantly increase the pace and scale of the Region’s restoration work. Only an environmental restoration program of unprecedented scale can alter the direction of current trends.

On June 18, 2013, during the US Forest Service’s Chaparral Symposium at the headquarters of the Angeles National Forest, Martin Dumpis, the coordinator for a new Forest Service initiative focusing on the protection and restoration of chaparral, provided those of us who value Nature so much hope. Standing at the podium and speaking with his disarming midwestern accent, he said, “Chaparral should be seen as a natural resource, rather than a fire hazard.”

In 2021, Nicole Molinari and others examined various steps necessary to successfully restore chaparral that has been compromised by too many fires with the primary goals of “maintaining sufficient native shrub cover and reducing the probability of future fire ignitions that would interfere with chaparral ecosystem recovery.”

Clear it Anyway

However, the sudden influx of funding for habitat clearance projects, and associated political pressures, have caused the USFS to revert back to its previous perspective of chaparral as fuel rather than a source of life.

As consequence, the US Forest Service has become a fuel management agency rather than a land management agency focused on conserving natural resources.

The step backward is deeply disheartening.

As Cal Fire has done with its statewide Vegetation Treatment Program (VTP), the USFS cites the science demonstrating that chaparral is being increasingly threatened, then proceeds to do what fuel management agencies do – clear more chaparral anyway.

How much habitat is the LNPF Ecological Restoration Project proposing to clear?

The Project is targeting more than a quarter million acres for “treatment,” more than half of which is native shrubland when including chaparral and sage scrub habitats naturally found within forested areas, or as the USFS vilifies these rich sources of biodiversity, “ladder fuels.”

Despite the overwhelming impact the Project has on chaparral, the Project’s scoping letter fails to clearly explain exactly how chaparral will be “restored” or protected.

Instead, the scoping letter spends a significant amount of space referring to forest health, how the Los Padres conifer forests are supposedly overly dense due to past fire suppression, and how chaparral will be cleared in, around, and near forests to protect the trees that remain after the Project’s logging activities.

It appears the Project’s entire ecological restoration component for chaparral rests on the twisted notion that if enough chaparral is cleared in football-field-length wide fuel breaks on as many ridge lines as possible (most far from any community at risk), along scenic highways, in large numbers of adjoining polygons in the Santa Barbara front country, and along both sides of Piru Creek and the Santa Ynez River, that the threat of increasing fire frequencies in chaparral will be addressed.

Such an assumption has been proven incorrect time and time again. The scoping letter even acknowledges this:

“However, regardless of firefighting efforts, even the best fuelbreaks stand little chance of arresting large fires in extreme conditions. Fuelbreaks are not designed to stop the spread of fire, especially during periods of strong winds when fire brands can be blown across these linear features.”

The 2017 Whittier Fire and the 1990 Painted Cave Fire provide two such examples (Figs. 1 & 2).

Regardless, the scoping letter justifies the clearance of tens of thousands of acres of chaparral because “under normal burning conditions” such clearance should allow for successful fire suppression efforts. Or stated more accurately, the Project will ignore the wildfires that burn the most acreage, destroy nearly all the property, and cause nearly all the fatalities. To make matters worse, the Project will increase the chance of ignitions by creating conditions that cause the spread of highly flammable, non-native grasses across the landscape.

Imagine if the US Military or the Federal Aviation Administration took this approach – only planning for perfect battle conditions, fair weather, and fool-proof equipment, in addition to increasing risk within the environment they operate.

Figure 1. The Whittier Fire easily jumped the 300-foot-wide West Camino Cielo fuel break.

Figure 2. The West Camino Cielo Fuel Break before the 2017 Whittier Fire (left). Photo on the right shows the same scene two years after the fire jumped the fuel break; the masticated habitat material left on the ground was burned and flammable, non-native grasses invaded. Notice the overly dense tree farm on the left, untouched by the masticators, but burned in the fire. The USFS bias in favor of trees causes it to see chaparral as only “fuel.”

Deja Vu

After twenty years of experience in submitting comments on dozens of USFS projects, we have come to the unfortunate conclusion that the NEPA process is broken.

Environmental Assessments and Environmental Impact Statements are written to create legally defensible documents to allow agencies to log and clear the habitat in the manner they want, not to objectively determine if a project should be rejected because it causes excessive environmental harm. Consequently, the courts provide the only realistic way to obtain relief for Nature.

Therefore, instead of repeating ourselves, we are submitting comment letters we have written regarding previous USFS habitat clearance projects that apply to the LPNF Ecological Restoration Project. Most of the projects we have commented on since 2005 have shown a bias in favor of forests at the expense of chaparral, have viewed chaparral primarily as a fuel source rather than an essential natural resource, and have consistently failed to properly recognize the cause of home ignition – embers, not nearby vegetation. The LPNF Ecological Restoration Project is no different.

It is our hope that the wealth of information our letters provide concerning native shrublands and wildfire will help the agency remember what it was beginning to understand before the current explosion in funding to clear habitat – chaparral is not “fuel,” but in fact, living habitat.

Figure 3. Animal life in the chaparral of the Los Padres National Forest. California Thrasher, Hermit Thrush, and the California dogface butterfly on a Refugio manzanita flower cluster.

It’s easy. Submit a comment to the USFS by end of day today, Tuesday, September 27, to let them know that you value chaparral and disagree with their destructive, so-called Ecological Restoration Plan.

Write your comment on their form here:

Our letter above and the informative website can help you write informed, powerful statements about why you are opposing this nightmare.

“Ecological restoration” on the Los Padres National Forest.

Nature Provides Common Ground, if We Listen

Happiness. Inspired. Encouraged. Comradery.

Words like these come to mind every time we have conversations – about Nature.

Whether it’s during a presentation, on the trail, or around a fire. Be it over howling grasshopper mice, ancient grizzly bear trails, or hot blood coming out of the eyes of horned lizards (it actually comes out of modified vessels near the eye lid), everyone is genuinely uplifted when amazing natural history tales are passed around.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Why do people really enjoy learning new things about Nature when nearly every other topic of discussion these days seems to be a hop, skip, and a jump away from a brawl?

No Flag in the Ground

First, people don’t seem not to have established deeply held, emotional opinions about Nature. When someone learns that what they thought was true about some aspect of Nature is completely wrong, they often laugh, celebrate how Nature surprises, then ask for more. We always have lively, happy discussions in our Chaparral Naturalist classes about how plants make oxygen (it comes from busting up the water molecule; carbon dioxide has nothing to do with it), how, when asked to draw a flower, most people don’t draw a flower at all, but rather a sunflower (which is actually a cluster of tiny flowers), or that really huge, hot, “so-hot-it-melts-metal” hot, once-in-a-century-wildfire is the perfectly natural pattern for chaparral.

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who gets their dander up and starts an argument that degenerates into questioning your heritage when you share with them that their belief about touching wild baby birds is wrong – it doesn’t cause the babies to be abandoned by their parents. Put the baby bird back into their nest the next time (if you can find it)!

Nature Accepts All

Secondly, Nature defines acceptance. Nature doesn’t care about our looks or backgrounds. All have an equal chance to enjoy life, to hear the sounds, to smell the fragrances, to feel the gentle breeze. The rhythms of life continue to flow regardless of our age, wealth, or identity. We are beautiful in Nature because we are allowed the freedom to define ourselves rather than being defined by societal expectations. 

Nature has nourished us for millions of years. Nature feels good because it’s where we came from, where we evolved, where our senses emerged. Nature is our home, our hearth.

In short, Nature provides common ground where everyone can feel welcome.

Freedom to Enjoy Life

Finally, Nature allows us to escape the fantasy world we have created within our minds, minds that seem to be increasingly being pushed into two divergent war camps; neither of which are anchored in reality; both of which are fraught with negativity and angst.

On the right, we have the view that Western Civilization is on the verge of collapse due to the destruction of morality, facilitated by socialists who are trying to take our freedoms away. Get your guns; load up on gold; estrange any who don’t feel the same. On the left we have the view that Western Civilization was, and remains, an oppressive force that contributed nothing to the world other than slavery and greed. Apologize for all its sins at every opportunity; replace science with stories that please; estrange any who don’t feel the same.

Then we have the rest of us who have realized life is a pretty special thing. We have fun celebrating the remarkable journey our species has traveled without fear or regret. And we do so knowing that whatever problems we may face are not because of any one group of us, but are rooted within our hubris as a species. The problem is Homo sapiens, not the tribe over in the next valley. We’re all in this together, driven by the same instincts that form a basic, common template for how we react in the world.

This is what Nature can help us understand, if we listen.

And no matter how self-righteous or self-important we may feel, the manzanita, the spadefoot toad, and the red harvester ant go about their business, every day, oblivious to our existence. Tomorrow you may be gone, but the ants will keep on harvesting. Don’t waste another second on what you can’t control.

What Can We Do?

Take our Chaparral Naturalist class. We have a unique program that helps you not only learn about the fascinating world of Nature, but about philosophy, how to think logically, and how to defend yourself from all those unimportant distractions that try to keep you from hearing the sounds, smelling the fragrances, and feeling the gentle breeze. Sign up. We start the first week of March. If live to far from San Diego where we teach our program, we’d be happy to help your group set up a Chaparral Naturalist course too. We have a weekend workshop available that’s a wonderful experience.

Learn about Nature on your own. There’s a whole natural world out there waiting to meet you, privately. Buy a few guide books. Tear out the geraniums; plant a few native plants. Of course, it helps to have a Nature coach with you who knows the bird calls, some of the plant names, and the difference between gneiss and schist. So, when you’re ready, take a bird watching walk with the local Audubon chapter, a hike with a natural history museum naturalist, or a guided tour of a nearby nature preserve. Ask questions. Breathe again.

Talk about things that inspire others to learn more. At your next dinner party, talk about Nature, philosophy, Roman history, the books you’ve read. Chattering about disasters, political controversies, outrageous behavior, tires the soul — unfortunately, it’s also genetic. Early humans who were able to recognize danger, focus on it, and respond quickly had a survival advantage over those who did not. Take an active step in the next stage of human evolution; make a conscious decision to celebrate life. By all means, stop at the red light, swerve to miss oncoming traffic. But time spent gossiping and expressing your opinion about the latest crisis only increases stress-hormone levels in your and everyone else’s blood stream. But imagine going to your next party, sharing your excitement over learning something new, like how the Roman Empire embraced cultural and religious diversity (as long as you embraced Rome), was a place of incredible opportunity no matter who you were (the son of a slave could be, did become, emperor), and that one of the most common symbols of Roman power (and contributing to the species name of the most common shrub in the chaparral) is on both sides of the rostrum of the US Congress (extra points if you figure it out).

“Well now, that was a most interesting party!”

Regain control. Understand that the doom and gloom we are fed has no impact on your daily life. If you do let it impact your day, it’s a choice, it’s a capitulation of your independence, handing over your joy of life to institutions that have only one interest in mind, their own. Everything is catastrophized to grab your attention, not to reflect reality.

Look away from the train wreck. We’ve been taught that we should be an informed citizenry. OK. But realize most of the sources of information out there now are more interested in agitating you than providing accurate information. So, allocate the time you use to stay up to date, wisely. Don’t let the dopamine addiction that tech companies have figured out how to use cause you to waste your precious hours. Walter Cronkite is gone. When comparing new sources from the 1960s to today, nearly all of them now favor attention-getting bias instead of objectivity. Stay away from partisan information sources and question everything, especially if what you hear confirms what you already believe.

Stop using social media. Besides wasting precious hours, every time you look, every time you post a picture, every time you “like,” every time you comment on a social media site, you are increasing the effectiveness of one of the most socially destructive profit machines ever created. Ah, but you say, “I just post photos of my vacation and ignore all that political stuff.” Don’t be a tool. Facebook et al. are using your information to make money, increasing their power and the power of all the disruptive forces in the world that have figured out how to use you, divide the country and the world, turning all that bad news they feed you to actually become your daily life. It’s costing lives. Just stop.

Start every morning with Nature. Listen to the birds as they greet the new day, searching for breakfast, singing to lovers, family, and competitors. Smell the morning air. Look out at the world. Celebrate how fortunate you are to experience yet another sunrise.

Watch ants more.

Photos: Desert campfire, Killdeer baby, Exploring Anza-Borrego (photo by Kathy Jones), Leaping into Saline Valley, Enjoying another turn of another day in the eastern Sierra Nevada.

Ten Reasons Why Chaparral is so Awesome

Take a drive (or a hike!) into the hills or mountains surrounding nearly every California metropolitan area and you are immediately immersed in chaparral, the state’s most characteristic habitat.

Maritime chaparral above Santa Barbara.

What’s out there? In addition to the 10 awesome features listed below, the chaparral is filled with an inspiring array of life including:

  • beautiful, drought-hardy shrubs like burgundy-barked manzanita with delicate, urn-shaped flowers and explosively blooming ceanothus, painting the hillside in cerulean blues and frosty whites.
  • rhythmic Wrentits calling from unknown places deep within the canopy.
  • the iconic symbol of prehistoric life – the horned lizard – basking in the sunlight.
  • the amphibian survivalist of drought – the spade foot toad – appearing only very briefly during the moistest of times.
  • the delicate checkerspot butterfly, skipping from flower to flower during the colorful explosion of spring.

Chaparral also provides spacious landscapes for the:

  • endangered California condor, the stealthy mountain lion, the marauding bobcat, and the trickster coyote.
  • ghosts of the now extinct California grizzly bear, and the absent jaguar which still haunt the shrub-encased tunnels below the leafy canopies of still thriving stands of old-growth chaparral.

Now to celebrate 10 remarkable features
that make the chaparral such an inspiring place!

1. Birthplace of Western Civilization

Mediterranean shrublands like California’s chaparral have given rise to two of the greatest civilizations of all time – Greece and Rome. Due to its Mediterranean climate (hot, dry summers, and mild, wet winters) and rich volcanic soils (some of the best in Europe), the Italian peninsula became the fertile birthplace of the Roman Empire. And although only 20% of the land in Ancient Greece was arable, it shared Rome’s climate, the key factor in the ability of both civilizations being able to produce an excess of grain, olive oil, and wine. As Rome grew, it merely looked across the Mediterranean sea to Egypt to supply the extra grain it needed. One of the perks of living in Rome itself was a free supply of grain, a remarkable achievement considering the city’s half-million population.

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