Environmental groups sue US Forest Service over plans to thin 13,000 acres of forest near Big Bear

Rob McMillan Image
Tuesday, August 15, 2023
Plans to thin 13K acres of forest near Big Bear prompts lawsuit
The U.S. Forest Service is concerned about the overgrowth of pine trees in and around Big Bear and have devised a plan to thin out the forest. But environmental groups oppose the plan and want it stopped.

BIG BEAR, Calif. (KABC) -- The mountain resort community of Big Bear is known for many things: abundant snow during the wintertime; a sun-splashed lake during the summer; and tens of thousands of pine trees along the hills and ridges.

But are there too many trees in the forest? A U.S. Forest Service project aims to thin what officials call an overgrown forest, although the plan is being met with resistance by several environmental groups.

"The problem is that the approach the Forest Service is taking," said Chad Hanson with the John Muir Project. "Using big machines to cut down tens of thousands of trees out in the remote wildlands, as opposed to focusing on the homes themselves and the zone immediately around the homes.

"That makes all the difference in terms of whether homes survive or not."

The John Muir Project, as well as the nonprofit group Friends of the Big Bear Valley and the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society, has filed a federal lawsuit hoping to stop the project.

According to the lawsuit, the last time the San Bernardino National Forest conducted a similar restoration project was in the early 2000s, prior to the devastating Grass Valley Fire of 2007 that burned 199 homes.

Hanson said such an approach makes homeowners in the wildlands subject to even greater fire risk. He said the Forest Service should instead focus on making 100-foot perimeters of defensible space around homes in the forest.

"When they remove a lot of trees it actually makes the fire burn faster through those areas, and that often times is toward towns," Hanson said.

Other concerns for environmental groups are the various forms of wildlife in the Big Bear Valley.

Sandy Steers with the nonprofit group Friends of the Big Bear Valley has concerns about what controlled burns and mass forest-thinning would mean for the famed bald eagles that have nested north of Big Bear Lake for years.

"If there's people doing mechanical thinning and doing prescribed burns right in their nesting area, they're not going to stick around," Steers said. "They're going to move their nest away."

Reached by phone, a U.S. Forest Service official said due to pending litigation it would be inappropriate for them to comment at this time.

But Forest Service documentation about the plan, known as the North Big Bear Landscape Restoration Project, claims "Over 100 years of fire suppression activities on the San Bernardino National Forest have excluded fire from much of the landscape, resulting in a departure from the natural range of variation and the pre-settlement fire return interval... Fires that burn in stands with high amounts of surface fuels ignite ladder fuels, which allows fire to reach tree crowns, resulting in increased flame lengths and fire behavior intensity.

"These increased fuels make fire suppression efforts more difficult, limit firefighter effectiveness, and put private property, infrastructure and natural resources at greater risk for damage and loss."