Forest Service sued over project rules

Two environmental groups are challenging Forest Service rules that allow the agency to do some land management projects without the normal level of public scrutiny.

Los Padres Forest Watch of Santa Barbara and California Chaparral Institute of San Diego have sued the Forest Service, citing a Los Padres National Forest fuels management project in northern Santa Barbara County.

The Tepusquet Fuels Treatment Project, about 12 miles east of Santa Maria, calls for clearing vegetation over 19,300 acres using a variety of techniques, including prescribed burning. The purpose of the project is to reduce the wildfire danger to homes in the area.

The project was approved earlier this year without a formal assessment of its effect on the environment that includes the opportunity for public comment and right of appeal. It was approved under rules adopted by the Forest Service in 2003 to streamline the permitting of small-scale timber sales, forest thinning projects and prescribed burns.

Of the Los Padres Forest’s 85 current land management projects, 59 could be covered by the streamlined rules, said Jeff Kuyper, executive director of Los Padres Forest Watch.

The groups say some aspects of the Tepusquet project are appropriate, but they object to other aspects of it, including the construction of fuel breaks in remote areas and the level of clearing in some areas.

“We have lost so much native shrubland habitat in the region already due to human-caused wildfires,” said Richard Halsey, executive director of the Chaparral Institute. “We’d like to help the Forest Service develop plans to protect what is left, but that’s difficult to do when we’re shut out of the process.”

A call to the Los Padres Forest for comment was not returned.

The sprawling Los Padres Forest stretches from Ventura County to Big Sur. Large portions of inland San Luis Obispo County are part of the forest. Land management activities common in the forest include oil drilling, grazing, road maintenance and fuels reduction.

Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.