Comments on Frog Timber Sale

by Sequoia Task Force, Sierra Club

November 5, 2000

Del Pengilly
District Ranger
Tule River Ranger District
Hot Springs Ranger District
32588 Highwy 190
Springville, CA 93265

Dear Mr Pengilly,

I am submitting these comments on behalf of the Sequoia Task Force of the Sierra Club regarding the Frog Project Area Analysis EA. Thank you for extending the comment period for 15 days.

We request that you withdraw this proposed project for the reasons stated in our earlier letters. At the very least a decision about the proposal should be deferred until Region 5 of the USFS makes a final decision about the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment (Framework) is made. Copies of those letters are included with these comments. By reference I am incorporating the Framework DEIS from Region 5, USFS, in these comments as well as the Sierra Club comments on that document.

The Frog EA proposal is in direct conflict with some of the proposed actions in the preferred alternatives in the Framework DEIS. In particular one of the preferred alternatives, Alternative 8, proposes creation of a Southern Sierra Fisher Conservation Area. In occupied habitat, which is defined as habitat within 5 miles of a fisher detection, vegetation treatments would be limited to those developed as formal experiments designed to evaluate the response of Pacific fisher to vegetation treatments. The Frog Project area is clearly well within the proposed fisher conservation area. The EA states that no known fisher dens lie within the project area. Where is the evidence to support that claim? If surveys were done how thorough were they and can a firm conclusion be drawn that there are no fisher dens in the area? Are fisher dens known outside the project area that would put the project area within the 5 mile limit of a known fisher den? We have information that is the case and that most of the project area falls within the 5 mile limit of known den sites. I have included a map showing fisher habitat in Sequoia National Forest.

I could not find a single reference to the Framework DEIS in the Frog Project EA. Yet the Forest Service, in order to make a decision about the Framework, has made enormous efforts to get public input about how the Sierra Nevada forests should be managed. This has been going for several months and Region 5 has prepared an extensive DEIS about the topic. It is our understanding that a final decision regarding the Framework will be made before the end of the year. Why is this project being moved forward with no consideration of the NEPA process in preparing a DEIS and final decision on the Framework? Why is this project being moved forward when it is in direct conflict with some of the provisions in the preferred alternatives in the Framework DEIS? Why can't a decision on the Frog Project be deferred until a final decision is made on the Framework to avoid a conflict between Region 5 and Sequoia National Forest management plans?

An examination of the References in the EA shows that a recent report regarding Pacific fishers is not included. I refer to the report titled "Preliminary Analysis of Fisher Population Vitality in the Southern Sierra Nevada" USDA Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station , William J Zielinski, et al, dated February 15, 2000. That report concludes the fisher population is declining precipitously and is in risk of extinction. Several reasons for this situation are discussed in the report. If the Frog project does move ahead,. a thorough review of that report should be conducted and considered before a final decision is made

I could only find one reference at the bottom of page 20 to the Giant Sequoia National Monument in the EA. Yet almost the entire western boundary of the project lies along the boundary of the Monument. The EA should discuss possible impacts upon the Monument and members of the public who visit the Monument. The main public access road from the south from below Tobias Peak to the Frog Meadow campground weaves in and out of the Monument all the way north to Sand Flat and beyond. Most of that distance passes through proposed cutting units in the project. Why does the EA not discuss the impact logging would have on visitors to the Monument? Frog Meadow Campground would be the main staging area for the public as they visit the Monument a short distance to the west. What safeguards would be taken to assure that people using the campground to visit the Monument do not have their experience ruined by the disturbances and visual impacts that accompany logging activities?

How do you plan to resolve the potential impact upon Pacific fishers that have den sites inside the Monument within 5 miles of the project area? The conflict between this project and the recommendation for a fisher conservation area in the preferred Alternative 8 of the Framework DEIS needs to be addressed. When the management plan for the Monument is finalized how will conflicts between that plan and this project regarding wildlife managment be resolved? For example habitat protection for California spotted owls, California condors, yellow legged frogs, and other sensitive or endangered species and sensitive species must addressed in the Monument management plan. Why is there no discussion of these potential future impacts in this EA? Without addressing this and trying to anticipate problems the future management plan for the Monument could end up being compromised by this project.

One of the main justifications given for the project is to reduce the threat of fire. Yet the fire management direction for Sequoia National Forest is badly out of date. Basically the direction now is to put out every fire as soon as possible. One of the primary issues dealt with in the Framework DEIS is fuels management. Why can't a decision on this project wait until a final decision is made on the Framework so that any fuels reduction in the area will be consistent with direction from Region 5? It would seem far more logical to wait until a decision is made at the Regional level for fuels management and adapt that direction to the conditions in Sequoia National Forest before a decision is made on this project. Piecemeal planning should not be used in Sequoia National Forest to deal with the important issue of fuels management.

Page 12 states that alternative 2 is more efficient in generating funds to implement the proposed prescribed burning. As a result of the widespread wildfires last summer a large amount of money was included in the Federal budget to manage fuels. Have you examined those funds as a source of money to reduce fuels in the project area? To claim that a timber sale should be conducted to provide funds for prescribed burning is the same as saying we have to cut trees to save the forest. Before that source of funds can be justified the EA should investigate all other sources of money for fuels reduction before making the claim that we should have a timber sale to pay for fuels reduction. If alternative funding can be found we suggest you consider an alternative that uses prescribed burning without commercial logging to improve forest health

Pages 10 and 11 discuss previous wildfires in the project area. There is a brief discussion of methods used to suppress these fires but no discussion of their affect upon forest health. Is data about how they affected forest health available and if so how was it used in planning this project? If 168 wildfires occurred in the project area since 1915 as revealed on page 11, surely there is some data about how they affected forest health. Page 10 mentions that fire scars on two trees were examined for analysis. That is hardly enough data to be statistically valid and draw conclusions from. Much more information is needed about fire history in the area before conclusions can be drawn about the role of fire in promoting forest health. For example there must be more than two stumps available to learn about wildfire scars.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has announced plans to consider listing the California spotted Owl as an endangered species under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. If the owl is listed as expected, critical habitat will have to be identified and a plan for recovery developed. The EA for the Frog Analysis states that the owl is found within the project boundary. Nothing should be done during the time the Fish and Wildlife Service is considering the listing of the owl that might jeopardize its chances for recovery if it is listed. Even though this project would conform to the Interim CASPO Guidelines, comments should be invited from the Fish and Wildlife Service to make sure nothing is done that might undermine plans they might develop for recovery of the owl. The Fish and Wildlife Service is also considering listing the mountain yellow legged frog. This species is not even mentioned in the EA yet the announcement from the Fish and Wildlife Service says it is found throughout the Sierra Nevada. Have surveys been done to find out if the frog is found in the project area? If it has been found there, why has it not been discussed in the EA? If there is no information about the frog in the project area what plans do you have to find out if it is found there? Surely no decision can be made about the project until this is known

The summary of issues in table 2.2 on page 5 says the project may affect individual owls and fishers but not "likely" lead toward listing. There should be no chance at all that this project could lead toward listing. When populations are down to just a few individuals every individual becomes very important. Recent studies of these species show populations are very low and decreasing. Habitats are becoming fragmented leading to isolated populations where gene pools are insufficient to prevent local extinction. Efforts to recover the California condor relied heavily upon individual animals to assure a sufficient gene pool for recovery. Populations of owls and fishers are very low and declining at an alarming rate. When populations become very low, which seems to be the case for the owls and fishers, every individual animal becomes increasingly important to maintain a healthy, viable gene pool. The emphasis on forest management in the project area should be on restoring habitat and populations of these species and not on cutting trees to help pay for the project.

The EA points out that 23% of the project area is composed of young stands which were planted following prior harvest entry. Most of these stands were planted with pine following large scale clear cutting in the project area and much of the surrounding area. Many of those plantations replaced nearly pure stands of fir. Today it is generally accepted that was a mistake. That kind of logging is no longer permitted. It has been the policy of Sequoia National Forest in the last several years to assure that the mix of conifer species remains the same as before when a timber sale is planned. There should be discussion of restoring the plantations within the project area to the mix of species found before previous timber sales. If it was a mistake to replace stands of nearly pure fir with pine, then plans should be made to restore those natural conditions that prevailed before the mistakes of clear cutting occurred in the 1980s. The natural conditions that occurred before that kind of logging was done determined which mix of species of conifers was best for each site. If forest health is the true goal of this project then restoration of natural conditions in the plantations should be included as an objective.

The EA states that no trees greater than 30 inches dbh will be cut in stands identified as "select" or "other" by the CASPO Interim Guidelines. Other than hazard trees , will any other trees greater than 30 inches dbh be cut anywhere as part of the project? If this is the case that should be revealed and justified in the EA. Hazard tree removal should not be used to justify this project. Hazard tree removal has already occurred in the project area recently and if there is sufficient evidence that more hazard trees need to be removed that can be done in a separate project from the proposed Frog Anaysis project.

The EA reveals that 3 miles of roads would need to be reconstructed. Where are these roads? How long has it been since they have been used and to what extent have they recovered and returned to a natural condition? Will these roads be open to the public during the operation of the project? Will they be closed and put to bed after completion of the project or will they remain open to the public? What process will be used to make that decision? Increasing road density increases the impact on wildlife resources and that should be taken into consideration.

Page 2 uses the return of funds to local counties for road maintenance and schools to help justify the project. The President recently signed legislation that will guarantee a fixed amount of funds to be returned to counties with Federal forest lands within their jurisdiction. The amount of money returned to counties will no longer be tied to the amount of timber cut on Federal forest lands. This project can no longer use funds returned to the local county to help justify it. The bill number in the Senate was if S1608 if you wish to review its provisions.

The economic analysis of the project on page 9 says the $100,000 cost of preparing the EA is not included, yet in Alternative 1, the no action alternative, a negative value was assumed because of the EA cost. How can that be if the EA is not included in the economic analysis? The cost of the EA should be included in all of the alternatives. If it were included in alternative 2 the cost to benefit ratio would be reduced to almost zero. Are the costs for road reconstruction included in the two action alternatives? If not they should be. All of the costs required to prepare and administer the project should be included in the calculation of the cost to benefit ratio. A discussion of how this calculation is made including the factors used to make the determination should be included in the EA.

Pages 2 and 3 discuss the possibility of modifications during presale preparation activities. How will the public be notified of any modifications? Some recent sales in Sequoia National Forest have had very large modifications after a final EA was issued. For example the EA for the Ice Timber Sale showed all of the cutting units were around the Greenhorn Summit area of the forest. When the Sequoia National Monument was designated we found several cutting units were included in the sale north of Sunday Peak that were not even considered in the Ice EA. They were added to the sale after the final EA was completed and there was no public notice. We only found out about this when the list of timber sales under contract inside of the Monument was released. The same thing has happened on other timber sales. In some cases I have had to make a separate request to ask for maps of sales as they were actually sold and found out drastic changes had been made to which cutting units that were included compared to the final EAs. If unsold cutting units from older projects are included in the final project the public has a right to know. There should be no excuse in not notifying interested members of the public if there will be any change in the project after a final EA is approved.

Page 4 says that 5.1 MMBF of timber will be offered to help pay for the project. Table 2.1 on page 5 says it will be 4.4 MMBF. Which number is correct? In any case we reject the premise that timber must be sold to help pay for increasing forest health.

The MSA calls for at least 5% of each seral stage to be maintained. Only 3% of the forested land in the project area has late successional characteristics. Yet about 80 acres of forest classified as late seral stage would be treated in the project with the expectation that it would move quickly to late seral conditions. If the 80 acres are already in a late seral condition why do they need to be treated? This may be a violation of the MSA.

The EA mentions at the top of page 9 that KV funds will be used to plant openings. Will openings be created by this project? If so how and where? How big will they be? What species would be planted?

Page 16 states that no LS/OG ranked 4 or 5 exist within the project area. The same page states that existing high quality LS/OG has a limited representation in the Sierra. Why does the project not include efforts to restore these conditions where they once existed? If forest health is the primary purpose of the project then the health of the forest should be improved by increasing the amount of rank 4 and 5 LS/OG area. This would also improve habitat for the California spotted owl and the Pacific fisher and perhaps reduce the need to list them under the Endangered Species Act.

Page 18 states that and average basal area of 180 sq ft/ acre or higher will be maintained following treatment. It further states that these standards may result in a slightly lower habitat quality from the current condition in areas used by the owl. Because fishers utilize the same kind of habitat they would also experience a decline in habitat quality. Because populations of both species are in such a precarious condition no decline in habitat quality whatsoever should be tolerated. Instead opportunities should be sought out to improve the habitat for these species. The same page points out that these species commonly select sites within the interior of forested stands and not along public roadways. How will the reconstruction of 3 miles of roads impact these species? What opportunities are there to close roads to improve habitat quality for them? The EA should discuss this issue as well.

Page 19 discusses areas along streams that will be protected. The claim is made that these standards are adequate to protect sensitive species using riparian areas. What references and scientific studies can you refer to that justifies these standards as adequate for these species, especially the California spotted owl, the fisher and yellow legged frogs? Page 20 considers cumulative impacts from previous projects and the Stormy Fire. The EA recognizes that these events have fragmented habitats with plantations and sapling stands covering 23% of the project area. While most of the clear cutting occurred in the southern half of the area it should be recognized that extensive clear cutting occurred north of Sand Flat. The impacts of the fire and clear cutting are not confined to the project area. These same impacts occur for miles in every direction outside of the project area. The cumulative impacts in the entire region should be considered. A line cannot be drawn around the project area with the assumption that what occurs or has occurred outside of the line does not need to be considered. The impacts of old timber sales and the fire outside of the project area should be evaluated. Impacts upon the Giant Sequoia National Monument should also be taken into consideration. Furthermore it is stated that the project would not radically degrade existing habitat. Considering the cumulative impacts of the fire and clear cutting in the surrounding area, no degradation of habitat at all should be tolerated. If there is a project in this area at all it should clearly improve habitat for all sensitive species

If you do not believe these concerns warrant withdrawal of the proposed project then it should at least be deferred until the pending decisions by Region 5 about the Framework, by the Fish and Wildlife Service about listing of the California spotted owl and the yellow legged frog are made and a management plan for the Giant Sequoia National Monument is adopted.

Joe Fontaine
Sequoia Task Force
Sierra Club