To Tree or Not to Tree - Mountain News : News

To Tree or Not to Tree

Posted: Thursday, April 25, 2019 9:00 am

Church Report Focuses on Fire Safety, Critics Mourn Loss of Wildlife Habitat

As the proposed Church of the Woods Project makes its way through the governmental approval process, the Draft Revised Environmental Impact Report (DREIR) is being reviewed by the public and interested parties.

The 27.12-acre project site in Rimforest is located north of State Highway 18, west of Daley Canyon Road and east of Scenic Way. The church proposes to develop the southern portion of the site with a church campus. Approximately 13.5 acres would remain as natural open space.

The DREIR noted that the county received a number of comments in response to the Notice of Preparation and at the scoping meeting for a previous version of the proposed project, and at public hearings. The comments raised issues concerning grading and landslides; traffic; water supply and quality; loss of trees and wildlife; fire hazards and evacuation; air quality; development along a scenic highway; and project alternatives.

This article, as part of an ongoing series by the Mountain News, focuses on the loss of trees, which has been identified as an area where concerns have been raised, indicating a level of controversy. In order to create level areas for buildings, sports fields and other features of the campus, it will be necessary to remove a lot of trees. The DREIR mentions the loss of trees in various contexts, but specifically in the document’s section on biological resources.

EXISTING CONDITIONS

The DREIR describes the project site as undeveloped and characterized by gently rolling hills to steep mountain terrain that is largely covered by montane coniferous forest. Approximately 99% of the property is dominated by mixed conifer forest and the remaining 1% of the property contains riparian scrubs. Overall, the mixed conifer forest community forms a high-quality habitat on the project site.

The dominant plant species within the site include Ponderosa pine, Jeffrey pine, white fir, big cone pine, incense cedar, sugar pine and black oak. The understory species within the site are California coffeeberry and California bay.

Riparian scrubs occur along a stream that flows down the middle of the site from the southwest to the northeast corner. That area is dominated by arroyo willow with a shrub layer of mountain dogwood, California mugwort, tarragon and mountain pink currant.

PREVIOUS TREE REMOVAL

The DREIR recounts that in 2003, Governor Gray Davis declared a state of emergency for San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties due to the imminent fire danger resulting from an infestation of bark beetles. The infestation resulted in the die-off of conifers and hardwoods,increasing the risk of fire in forested areas. Approximately 250 trees were removed from the project site during that time to preserve approximately 3,719 trees that were not affected.

The report continues to describe more tree-removal projects, beginning with a 2003 Foresters Report inventory. That inventory estimated that of the approximately 3,969 trees six inches in diameter and larger located on the project site before 2004, about 70 percent of the trees on the site were removed as a fire preventative measure.

Subsequently, approximately 2,800 dead trees of various sizes were removed from the project site from October 2004 through February 2005, with the largest percent being Ponderosa and Coulter pines.

In addition, the San Bernardino County Fire Department (SBCFD) initiated an ongoing Large Tree Removal Program to remove dead, dying and diseased trees. The SBCFD partnered with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to remove other vegetation, both living and dead. Under that program, tree and vegetation removal on the project site took place during September and October 2008. In September 2013, approximately 12% of the Ponderosa pine trees, 5% of the fir trees, 33% of the cedar, and 50% of other hardwood trees found on the project site were removed pursuant to the SBCFD’s Large Tree Removal Program, according to the DREIR.

Additionally, the Department of Forestry and Fire Protections approved the project site to be thinned of trees and potential fire hazards in September 2013, with tree-removal concluding in November 2013.

The DREIR did not provide a “grand total” of trees removed, the number of trees currently remaining, or an estimate of additional trees to be removed.

AUDUBON COMMENTS

“The plan to clear-cut all trees of the entire 14-acre footprint of the project area, and then carve off the top of the on-site knoll in order to fill in the adjacent stream basin stands out in stark conflict with the county’s policy of maintaining the natural contours of the mountain environment, which ought to be an inviolable policy in Southern California’s premier National Forest,” a report from the Audubon Society states.

Audubon commented that the DREIR was downplaying this policy conflict. As a result, the DREIR failed to acknowledge the extent to which such a major topographical alteration was an extreme act, particularly when it is directly adjacent to a cherished public forest landscape.

“A cut and fill of 315,000 cubic yards of earth is unprecedented in the local mountain area,” Audubon said. Such massive destruction to the natural environment would have significant adverse repercussions on every unique feature of the site as well as on National Forest lands directly adjacent to the project on three sides, not to mention the quarter mile of U.S. Forest Service designated Scenic Byway which fronts the property.”

The severity of this major landscape disruption and the resultant impacts to wildlife, habitat and the natural aesthetics of the surrounding forest cannot be mitigated below a level of significance, Audubon said. The DREIR does not accurately assess the full scope and impact of such a major environmental upheaval and only proposes inadequate, unrealistic or no mitigation at all in many cases.

The site also includes vital riparian vegetation and provides exceptional habitat for several rare species, while being located significantly within a major county-designated wildlife corridor. Audubon opined that none of these attributes are given the serious consideration they warrant in the DREIR.

By minimizing the unique aesthetic and biological qualities of the site (and the surrounding public values of the National Forest setting), the DREIR fails to accurately identify the outstanding environmental values that will be severely compromised by the Church of the Woods’ project. In turn, the full extent of the project’s significant impacts are insufficiently analyzed and undervalued, resulting in inadequate disclosure or mitigation, Audubon said.