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Notes from the Field: Destructive Fire Suppression Impacts & the Spectacular Biological Values of the Proposed Pattison Wilderness Area

During the first week of April, I spent some time in the field monitoring the impact of dozerline construction during the 2021 fire season in the Pattison Inventoried Roadless Area. What I witnessed was the appalling disregard for the land’s unique natural, scenic and recreational values during suppression of the 2021 Monument Fire. What I also saw was a rugged and beautiful landscape with deep canyons, steep rocky ridges, beautiful mixed conifer forests and a spectacular mixed severity fire mosaic.

Although forest and fire managers used their discretion to implement damaging, often ineffective and unnecessary dozerlines in highly inappropriate locations, from a biological standpoint, the effects of the Monument Fire were highly beneficial. Overall, the 224,688-acre Monument Fire burned at 67% low, 29% moderate and 4% high severity. In the Pattison Inventoried Roadless Area, the fire largely maintained old forest habitats, renewed plant communities, increased heterogeneity with high severity burn patches, and reinforced the diverse patchwork of vegetation communities and seral stages across the landscape.

The Proposed Pattison Wilderness & Hayfork Creek Wild and Scenic River

A view into the Miners Creek watershed from Pattison Ridge in the proposed Pattison Wilderness Area. Notice the mixed severity fire effects of the 2021 Monument Fire.

The proposed Pattison Wilderness is located on lower Hayfork Creek, a major tributary of the South Fork Trinity River and an important salmon and steelhead fishery. Hayfork Creek flows from its headwaters near Wildwood, California and the Chanchelulla Wilderness into the broad Hayfork Valley. Downstream of Hayfork Valley, the stream runs into a steep, rocky canyon and quickly enters the proposed Pattison Wilderness Area and proposed  Lower Hayfork Creek Wild and Scenic River. Hayfork Creek then winds west through scenic gorges and spectacular mixed conifer forests to the South Fork Trinity River in Hyampom, California.

Certainly worthy of additional habitat protections, the Pattison Inventoried Roadless Area was recently proposed for Wilderness designation in Jared Huffman’s Northwestern California Wilderness, Recreation & Working Forest Act. This legislation, which has passed the House and is pending in the Senate, would designate additions to ten existing wilderness areas and create eight new wilderness areas in northwestern California, including the proposed 29,451-acre Pattison Wilderness Area. The legislation would also designate 379 miles of new Wild and Scenic River, including over 16 miles of lower Hayfork Creek.

A meadow lined in chaparral below Pattison Ridge in the proposed Pattison Wilderness Area.

The proposed Pattison Wilderness is a beautiful, rugged, and diverse region, cut by deep forested canyons filled with ancient Douglas fir and open rocky ridgelines, consisting of old-growth ponderosa pine,  hardwood stands, open-grown live oak, thickets of chaparral, ghost-like grey pine growing from serpentine outcrops, and mountain meadows lined in wide-branching oak trees.

The enchanted Hayfork Creek canyon is embedded within the proposed Pattison Wilderness and is equally impressive with its remote canyon of noisy rapids, tumbling riffles, deep, clear pools and ancient mixed conifer forests. Containing the remote, inaccessible canyons of Little Creek, James Creek, Miners Creek, Gates Creek and the lower portions of Corral Creek, the proposed Pattison Wilderness contributes numerous cold water tributaries into the proposed lower Hayfork Creek Wild and Scenic River. These cold, clear, unimpaired streams are increasingly important as climate change, extended droughts, excessive road networks, industrial logging and poorly stewarded agriculture — including industrial-scale marijuana cultivation in Hayfork Valley — contribute to watershed-wide water quality impacts.  

Although remote and relatively obscure, the area is also well loved by both residents in the surrounding area and visitors to Camp Trinity and Bar 717 Ranch, a wilderness youth camp at the edge of the proposed Pattison Wilderness Area. Founded in 1930 by Grover Gates, Camp Trinity is the oldest accredited co-educational summer camp in California, and a wonderfully beautiful place to visit.

Camp Trinity and Bar 717 Ranch with Gates Mountain and the proposed Pattison Wilderness Area in the distance.

At Camp Trinity, children have learned respect for nature, backwoods homesteading and land-based skills for over 90 years. They have also learned to swim and fish in Hayfork Creek and have hiked into the deep canyons, ancient forests and rugged ridgelines of the proposed Pattison Wilderness. For so long, the area has provided the benefits of wilderness without official Wilderness designation. The area has also influenced generations of children to love nature and understand its intrinsic value.

The rugged, rocky ridges dividing the Trinity River from Hayfork Creek rise quickly to the over 5,000′ summit of Pattison Peak, with views extending from the Trinity Alps to the Yolla Bolly Mountains and across the South Fork Trinity River watershed. Protecting both the Pattison Wilderness and lower Hayfork Creek Wild and Scenic River would maintain the area’s prominent natural character, scenic beauty and isolated wildlife habitats. The area deserves full wilderness and Wild and Scenic River protections, so future generations can continue to enjoy the undeveloped nature of the region.

Klamath Forest Alliance (KFA) wholeheartedly supports designation of the Pattison Wilderness Area and Lower Hayfork Creek Wild and Scenic River!

A beautiful wide branching live oak.
A view from Pattison Ridge into the Hayfork Creek canyon.
Old-growth Douglas fir underburned in the 2021 Monument Fire.
The rocky southern face of Gates Mountain.

 

Fire Suppression Impacts

Two damaging dozerlines merge on Pattison Ridge in the proposed Pattison Wilderness Area.

Although the Forest Service is allowed broad discretion surrounding fire suppression activities and the use of bulldozers in Wilderness Areas, National Monuments, Inventoried Roadless Areas, Botanical Areas, and other conservation-based land use allocations, the agency is also obligated under the Wilderness Act, in applicable Forest Plans, and in the Roadless Rule to maintain the values for which these areas have been designated. As noted in our previous post, and documented in our 2021 Region 5 Fire Report, these obligations are being routinely ignored, neglected or willfully abused across the region.

Despite significant conservation value and “pending” wilderness designation, fire managers from federal Incident Command teams, the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, the Region 5 Forest Service, and CalFire authorized and implemented a series of damaging dozerlines during the 2021 Monument Fire. These dozerlines were built throughout the proposed Pattison Wilderness Area, despite significant public opposition and the recommendations of Secretary of Agriculture Vilsak who ordered suppression crews to limit the environmental impact of fire suppression activities.

A wide and particularly damaging dozerline near Gates Mountains in the proposed Pattison Wilderness Area.

These dozerlines were etched into the wildlands, down every historic Native American, and later, pioneer trail in the region, and on nearly every major ridgeline in the proposed Pattison Wilderness Area. Built on incredibly steep slopes, these dozerlines were also “improved” or widened by fire crews to between 20′ and 200′ wide, doing immense amounts of damage to the area’s trails, scenic qualities, wildlife habitats and native plant communities.

Over the course of the last past ten years, the Klamath Forest Alliance’s, Klamath-Siskiyou Fire Report Program has published 13 fire reports, monitored over 20 fires and hiked hundreds of miles of dozerline. Never in all those year have we witnessed the kind of excessive, damaging dozerline creation that took place in the proposed Pattison Wilderness Area. Never have we seen dozerlines literally built into cliffs like they were at the heart of the Pattison, and never have we seen the land treated with such disregard.

Although the impacts of dozerline creation were severe and unnecessary, in time they will at least partially heal and much still remains to protect in the proposed Pattison Wilderness Area. Regional Forest Service officials have agreed that mistakes were made during the suppression of the Monument Fire and other fires in the 2021 fire season, yet absolutely nothing has been done to address the issue, create some level of accountability, or ensure that such impacts will not continue to occur in the future. Region 5 Forest Service managers must conduct a transparent review of fire suppression impacts in wilderness and wildland landscapes during the 2021 fire season and identify specific reforms that will protect cultural, biological and recreation values on federal lands, while promoting safe, effective fire management and fire containment strategies.

We recommend the following:

  1. A commitment to implement Minimum Impact Suppression Tactics (MIST) whenever possible in sensitive environments, including Wilderness Areas, Inventoried Roadless Areas, Botanical Areas, designated Backcountry Areas, Research Natural Areas and other conservation areas intended to protect habitat values, biodiversity or natural conditions.
  2. The development of fire management plans in the upcoming National Forest plan revisions. These plans should identify specific MIST strategies and tactics appropriate in sensitive environments and land use designations.
  3. The utilization of managed wildfire for resource benefit in Wilderness Areas, Inventoried Roadless Area and other backcountry habitats, while at the same time protecting communities, infrastructure and habitat values.
  4. Increased consultation between local resources knowledgeable about a specific region, Native American tribes, Resource Advisors (READS), and Incident Command Teams during wildfire events.
  5. An annual after-action review and investigation conducted at a Regional scale, addressing all wilderness dozerlines and “non-compliant” activities approved during each fire season. These reviews should make recommendations to limit future impacts through adaptive management and effective regulation of fire suppression activities in Wilderness Areas, Inventoried Roadless Areas and other sensitive habitats.
  6. After-action reviews should include tribes, members of the public, environmental organizations, Regional Forest Service officials, local National Forest officials and fire managers. Reviews and their findings should be made public with an annual report tracking fire suppression impacts in sensitive environments and land use allocations.

For more information read the 2021 Region 5 Fire Report

Dozerline on Pattison Ridge.
Extremely steep dozerline above Gates Creek.
Dozerline on upper Pattison Ridge.
Dozerline below Gates Mountain.

 

Take Action

Please contact Region 5 Forest Service officials with your concerns about wilderness bulldozing during the 2021 fire season. Ask for a transparent internal investigation and after action review.  

Christina Boston, Regional Wilderness Program Leader

christina.boston@usda.gov

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