By Kimberly Baker, EPIC Public Lands Advocate and Matt Simmons, EPIC
Sparsely populated Trinity County is defined by its granite peaks, national forests and wild and scenic rivers. These features make this an exceptional place both for wildlife and for people who enjoy the county’s natural landscapes and recreation opportunities. Anyone who has ever hiked in the Shasta Trinity National Forest or gone rafting down the Trinity River knows that this area is special because it has avoided the impacts of over-development. But that unique status is threatened by a recently proposed project.
The Trinity Public Utility District (PUD) and the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) recently announced that they are preparing an environmental impact statement to analyze the impacts of logging up to 3700 acres of forest, primarily in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. The Wildfire Risk Reduction, Reliability, and Asset Protection (WRAP) project proposes to expand the rights of way (ROWs) for these two powerline operators to a width of up to 130 feet along 235 miles of steep forestlands, with subsequent timber sale contracts to “[c]lear vegetation within the ROWs using a combination of mechanical, manual, and herbicidal control methods.” This new swath of cleared land, essentially long linear clearcuts, would not only be seen from space but also possibly from some of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest’s most heavily used areas like the Canyon Creek trail, the Trinity Reservoir and along the Wild and Scenic Trinity River and the Scenic Byway of Highway 299. EPIC understands that powerline operators want to reduce the risk of fire, but a 130 foot wide ROW would do more harm than good. Logging and clearing such a large area of land would cause disastrous impacts to water quality, salmon, wildlife and the visual quality these rugged watersheds provide.
One serious problem these expanded ROWs will have is a reduction in habitat connectivity. Research has consistently shown that habitat connectivity is one of the most important tools for conserving wildlife species. The proposed logging would create long, wide exposed spaces that many forest species cannot safely cross due to the risk of predation. In effect, the clearings will trap these species on tiny islands of suitable habitat. Once an animal is trapped on an island and separated from the rest of the population, the number of potential breeding partners diminishes significantly. This restriction can cause inbreeding which has negative impacts on wildlife populations. Without gene exchange to promote healthy populations, other conservation efforts will be insufficient to protect these species.
Another serious impact these expanded ROWs will have is increased sedimentation of the Trinity River. In 1992, EPA added the Trinity River to California’s 303(d) impaired water list due to elevated sedimentation. Excess sediment can be damaging to the ecological health of rivers and reduce their environmental, social and cultural values. The primary adverse impacts associated with excessive sediment in the Trinity River pertain to degradation of habitat for anadromous salmonids. Excess sediment fills streambed pools which are essential spawning, nursery and overwintering habitat for anadromous salmonids. Sedimentation can also affect the oxygen supply to salmonid eggs which decreases their chance of survival. The excess sediment is caused primarily by landslides and surface erosion from logging and logging roads. Since 1992, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board has been monitoring and attempting to restore the water quality of the Trinity River. EPIC believes that the proposed logging would seriously undermine these efforts because tree removal, especially on steep slopes, is known to cause landslides and greatly diminish soil health.
No matter how wide the powerline ROW, there will continue to be fires in California’s forests. This is because fire is a natural part of the forest ecosystem that is only becoming more severe because of climate change and harmful forest management practices. For instance, last year’s August Complex Fire was started by a series of lightning strikes with no direct human source of ignition. Given this reality, EPIC believes that efforts should be focused on defending people and homes from fire. The Trinity PUD’s recent Wildfire Management Plan already outlines numerous adequate safety measures. Instead of this destructive and overbroad project, EPIC encourages the proponents to spend their time and money on fire risk reduction strategies, such as home hardening and defensible space. EPIC also urges the project proponents to consider less environmentally destructive means of protecting their facilities.