This past Wednesday, the Eastern Sierra Climate & Communities Resilience Project (ESCCRP) held a virtual public scoping meeting that included a Q&A with project team members.
Per their page on the Eastern Sierra Wildfire Alliance website, The ESCCRP, or “Mammoth Donut Project,” aims to “improve forest health and resilience and reduce the potential of catastrophic wildfire on 56,000 acres around the Town of Mammoth Lakes.”
By cutting down trees – dead and alive – and piling the clippings. Or, as they write, “reducing tree density through mechanical and hand thinning methods, bringing the landscape closer to its natural condition.”
Erin Noesser, the environmental coordinator for the Inyo National Forest, presented the ESCCRP’s current standing during Wednesday’s meeting. The target area – 56,000 acres – stretches north toward the June turn-off and south toward the Lakes Basin and the Sherwins. When The Sheet reported on the project back in March, ecologist Malcolm North was quoted advocating for the removal of as much as 80% of the trees.
But, doesn’t tree-chopping hurt forests?
Noesser pointed toward the historic conditions of the forests surrounding Mammoth. The anthropogenic suppression of fires over the past several decades has caused trees in the forests to grow smaller and closer together. Weaker trees and denser forests make the ecosystem more vulnerable to high-intensity, devastating burns.
The ESCCRP team looked at the surrounding forest’s Fire Interval Return Departure, which shows the difference between current and presettlement fire frequencies. Much of the forests surrounding Mammoth show a high departure from historical conditions. Hotter fires are burning more often in Mammoth’s backyard.
Forest fires are a natural, necessary part of an ecosystem. Healthy fires torch a few trees, scorch off lower branches, and stick to the forest floor, rather than the crown. According to fire.ca.gov, these healthy fires clean the forest floor debris, nourish soil, and allow for more sunlight to reach the trees. They also kill diseases and set the stage for new grasses, shrubs, and herbs to sprout, providing food and shelter to creatures that wander the forest floors. Fewer shrubs decreases demand for water, which means healthier, more hydrated, and more resilient trees.
In short, the ESCCRP aims to restore the surrounding forests to their historical conditions so that when burns occur, they are healthy and productive, rather than intense and destructive.
Beyond increasing community resilience to wildfires (i.e. better protecting the town from fire devastation), the thinning of forests promotes better habitat for fish and wildlife and, as mentioned, more water that will further fortify the trees that remain. In a counterintuitive way, cutting down much of the forest might be good for the forest in the long run.
The ESCCRP is currently in its public scoping period. During the winter and spring of 2023, the team plans to conduct an analysis of the 56,000 acres to see what the exact effects of forest thinning will be.
Following their analysis, the team will draft an environmental assessment for public comment. Come Winter 2024, the environmental assessment will be finalized. A period for objections to the project will occur during the spring of 2024, and, in the summer of 2024, the final plan will be implemented.
During the Q&A, Environmental Director at Big Pine Paiute Tribe Sally Manning asked why thinning had already begun in places like the Inyo Craters if the project had yet to begin. Fred Wong, District Ranger of the Mammoth Ranger District, replied, “A lot of that work has been completed due to previous analysis projects from the past that happened to be shelf ready.”
One team member – Taro Pusina of Spatial Informatics Group, who has worked with wildfire for much of his career in places like Yosemite and Bishop – addressed the increased fire risk that piled logs and branches pose. “If we put that biomass on the floor [after cutting it down],” said Taro, “it still creates a massive fire risk… so, yes, there is fire danger and fire risk. We did an analysis of that risk and prioritized this treatment. There is certainly going to be elevated fire risk” while those piles are on the ground.
In an email to the Sheet, ESCCRP program manager Janet Hatfield of the Whitebark Institute wrote that “we are actively working with a group of stakeholders on identifying a solution to use all of the woody material/forest waste… we hope to identify our preferred alternative by the end of the year and then begin making steps toward realizing that solution. Right now it’s looking like a small bioenergy plant, but who knows where we will end up.”
Some of the material will be made available as public firewood, and some of it will be burned on-site during the winter.
Similar thinning projects have been executed in Inyo County, but never before at this scale.
A large funding source for the project is the state of California, which has established wildfire goals of treating a million acres a year by 2025 and preserving 30% of the landscape by 2030. Federal funding from Biden’s infrastructure bill and his Inflation Reduction Act will also bolster the ESCCRP.
When asked what led the Whitebark Institute – a nonprofit whose mission is to “facilitate applied research and education that enables and informs multidisciplinary environmental problem solving” – to take on the ESCCRP, Hatfield wrote that she was originally approached by Inyo National Forest “several years ago” when she worked for Plumas Corp. She’d been working on similar, smaller projects, but her initial response was no. “I didn’t want to be involved in such a high visibility or political project… not really my style,” she wrote.
Eventually, her mind was changed: “After some long conversations, a few key people convinced me that no one else would likely step up to take this on, and, pretty obviously, something really needs to be done. Plumas Corp. was awarded funding in Spring of 2020, same year as the Creek Fire. ”
As for why Mammoth is getting all the attention, Hatfield wrote, “Mammoth has a much larger problem than many other towns in the eastern Sierra, in that fuels mitigation in forests is much more expensive and time consuming than in other vegetation types. It’s important to recognize that, simultaneously with the investment in the ESCCRP, the state invested in a program to build regional capacity around forestry and fire prevention planning.”
“So, by funding Mammoth as a separate project, it allowed for the regional program to focus on all the other communities, while I got to focus on just one large problem: ‘Mammoth.’ Whitebark then stepped in to help support both of these local efforts and hire local people to help do the work.”