Recently, the creation of a Feather River Canyons National Monument was proposed by a local group with historic roots in Plumas public land management. The Friends of Plumas Wilderness was successful in establishing the Bucks Lake Wilderness from land within the Plumas National Forest in 1984. Some of their original members were also pivotal in creating the Quincy Library Group (QLG) collaboration that passed Congress unanimously in 1998 (but in my view) was slow walked, opposed, and underutilized.
What is concerning is whether national monument status would have any effect on current uses and access to the Plumas National Forest, and whether any enhanced efforts of forest rehabilitation or wildfire protection would be compromised.
Timber management and utilization were part of QLG’s goal. There were compromises for a reduced allowable cut in commercial quality timberland within the Plumas National Forest. This choice was a reduction from pre-spotted owl restriction levels, and was agreed to as being closer to sustained yield—the forest service’s mission for renewable natural resources on its lands.
Another major part of QLG was an effort for fuels reduction and thinning to create Defensible Fuel Profile Zones to protect mountain communities. This was not a complete erasure of forest growth along ridge tops, but was a thinning to a specific crown closure, a removal of ladder fuels, and a reduction in the depth of organic material ground cover. Merchantable timber was removed in this thinning to offset treatment costs. Without that, this process would be “welfare forestry.” The post-treatment condition is safer against wildfire but not permanent, and where DFPZs exist they must be maintained for community and forest protection. What is that protection?
It is the chance that approaching wildfire will advance more slowly when it meets less concentrated fuel. Like so many other national forests, the historic build-up of such fuels has intensified recent wildfires. A friend who studied fire scars on trees hereabouts found that the frequency of fire on the Plumas has been that the average acre has burned every 15 years.
As supportive as I am for forest fuel reduction and a continuing use of prescribed fire, I fully realize that the conditions that fed the Dixie and other large fires can still blast through forests no matter what we do. Record drought, dry soils, hot weather and high winds will push fires toward conflagration—but we might slow them down for better odds of earlier suppression and improved safety. Less catastrophic wildfires would preserve soils that could absorb and hold water to make trees less flammable. They would also maintain access to property insurance, cause fewer evacuations, and provide greater safety.
While a significant portion of the Plumas National Forest has burned in the last few years, fuel treatments of dense grow-back will be required along with decisions on possible rehabilitation to a mixed conifer forest. Over the last 100 years the land coverage by thick-barked and high self-limbing Ponderosa Pine has been reduced, and White Fir, with its thin sap-filled bark and ground level limbs, has become far more common. White Fir accelerates approaching wildfire and is less tolerant of dry conditions, likely enhancing insect-caused tree death.
The creation of a national monument would mean that the Department of the Interior would manage the designated acreage. Because it does not operate based on the Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act of 1960, some timber management, fuels reduction, and access for aforementioned treatments may face restriction. The communities surrounded by national forest land will have to judge the risk to their present uses of the forest, its post-wildfire rehabilitation, and future safety from new wildfires.
The Butte County Supervisors have a stake in the national monument effort because the proposal covers some of their jurisdiction. They have made a detailed statement on the issue and I expect that the Plumas Supervisors will eventually do the same. Since no existing federal agency or policy of the federal government has produced a recommendation for the establishment of a new national monument, local wishes could be the deciding influence.