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U.S. Forest Service Reconsidering Gaviota Fuel Break Plans After Environmental Groups File Lawsuit

Two organizations claimed the fuel break cut through rare chaparral species’ habitat and was an inefficient use of resources

The California Chaparral Institute and Los Padres ForestWatch filed and then dropped a lawsuit claiming that the proposed 6-mile-long fuel break between the Refugio Pass and Gaviota Peak would cut out a swath of the habitat of Refugio manzanita, a type of chaparral endemic to the Gaviota coastline and adjacent Santa Ynez Mountains. Click to view larger
The California Chaparral Institute and Los Padres ForestWatch filed and then dropped a lawsuit claiming that the proposed 6-mile-long fuel break between the Refugio Pass and Gaviota Peak would cut out a swath of the habitat of Refugio manzanita, a type of chaparral endemic to the Gaviota coastline and adjacent Santa Ynez Mountains. (Richard Halsey photo)

The U.S. Forest Service is reconsidering plans for a 6-mile fuel break through the Gaviota Coast after two environmental organizations filed a lawsuit contending that it would cut through the habitat of a rare species of chaparral plant and was an inefficient use of fire-protection resources.

The pending legal action was dropped after the Forest Service withdrew its original decision memo on a greater fuel-break project, said Andrew Madsen, a Forest Service spokesman.

The fuel in question is brush, chaparral and other flammable vegetation that feed wildfires. Fuel breaks are intended to provide a barrier to spreading fires by cutting away long lines of the vegetation.

The California Chaparral Institute and Los Padres ForestWatch contended that the proposed 6-mile-long, 300-foot-wide fuel break between the Refugio Pass and Gaviota Peak would cut out a swath of the habitat of Refugio manzanita, which is endemic to the Gaviota coastline and adjacent Santa Ynez Mountains, and other rare plants.

Madsen said the December lawsuit was dropped because additional analysis could be warranted for the Gaviota and Refugio Canyon portion of the fuel-break project.

A new decision memo was completed without those far-west portions of the original plan, he said. Fuel-break work will continue around other parts of local mountain communities like Painted Cave and Rosario Park.

The California Chaparral Institute and Los Padres ForestWatch also argued that fuel breaks far from human development were also “a costly and often ineffective way to stop wildfires and protect homes.”

The groups claimed that defensible spaces in close proximity to homes, in addition to retrofitting buildings with fire-resistant material, were more effective at protecting communities.

“We are extremely grateful the Los Padres National Forest reconsidered this project,” California Chaparral Institute director Richard Halsey said in a statement Monday.

The U.S. Forest Service is doing more analysis on its proposed fuel break on the Gaviota Coast, which would cut through the habitat of Refugio manzanita, according to environmental groups which legally challenged the project. Click to view larger
The U.S. Forest Service is doing more analysis on its proposed fuel break on the Gaviota Coast, which would cut through the habitat of Refugio manzanita, according to environmental groups which legally challenged the project.  (Richard Halsey photo)

“We're hopeful this decision signals greater agency collaboration with both fire scientists and conservationists so we can work together to jointly develop effective plans to reduce fire risk to protect people and nature.”

Madsen said fuel breaks have existed for decades throughout the 3,000-square-mile Los Padres National Forest, and that analyses by specialists in conjunction with the Forest Service determine which fuel breaks would provide the greatest assistance to firefighters.

Due to the ever-lengthening fire season and ecological considerations like bird nesting, fuel-break construction and restoration are limited to certain times of the year, he said.

Local fuel breaks were worked out with the county, Madsen added, with the Forest Service carving out the breaks in its own jurisdiction.

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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