Opposition is building at the approach of the Aug. 14 deadline for public comment on the Forest Service’s proposal to log trees and grind up chaparral along six miles of the prominent ridge known as Pine Mountain, deep in the Ventura County backcountry.

Local tribal groups, businesses, elected representatives, and members of the public, from Santa Barbara,Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties, and beyond, have submitted more than 10,000 comments to the Forest Service opposing its proposal to remove old-growth trees and chaparral across 755 acres, without an environmental assessment.

The project, located in some of the most diverse and unique habitats in the region, has received many times more comments than any single project proposed in Los Padres National Forest.

Concerns include the avoidance of appropriate environmental study and examination of alternatives normally required for such projects under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA); disturbance of cultural sites; damage caused to a popular recreation area; impacts to sensitive plant and animal species; increased wildfire risks; weakening of the forest’s ability to adapt to climate change; and the possibility that the project will be conducted by a commercial logging company. 

Signatures continue to be collected on a letter, already signed by some 30 area businesses including Patagonia, Toad & Co., outfitters, wineries, and breweries, that oppose the project based on the benefits Pine Mountain ridge provides to the region’s economy and quality of life.

Nearly 70 environmental and social justice organizations have signed onto a separate letter challenging the Forest Service’s lack of collaboration and the skirting of NEPA studies. The letter also questions the efficacy of remote vegetation clearing to protect distant communities from wildfire.

“Our primary concern is the project’s lack of attention and near total insensitivity to the potential impact to Chumash cultural values and resources,” wrote Julie Tumamait-Stenslie, chair of the Barbareno/Ventura Band of Mission Indians.

Chumash tribes including the Barbareño/Ventureño Band of Mission Indians and Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation, and elected officials including Congressmembers Julia Brownley and Salud Carbajal, Ventura County Supervisors Linda Parks and Steve Bennett, and Ojai mayor John Johnston have submitted letters to the Forest Service also calling for further environmental review and public engagement. 

“I understand, the U.S. Forest Service’s own assessment of potential and existing fuel breaks in the southern Los Padres National Forest ranks this project as 118 out of 163 in terms of priority,” said Brownley, of California’s 24th District, where thousands of Pine Mountain advocates live.

“Given the project’s low priority, it is unclear to me why this project has been selected to bypass complete environmental analysis,” she said.

Despite its massive scale, the Forest Service intends to fast-track the project by categorizing it as “forest health and fuels reduction” to bypass requirements under the NEPA to conduct a detailed study of potential impacts on the area’s unique ecosystems, as well as to consider alternatives that may be more effective and less harmful.

The agency has admitted the project will do little to aid in fighting the type of fires that cause the vast majority of damage to communities each year.

Further, vegetation removal projects can increase wildfire risk by removing fire-resistant trees, increasing heating and drying of the forest floor, and spreading non-native invasive grasses and weeds that ignite more easily and spread wildfire more quickly.

“The city of Ojai would recommend promoting defensible space requirements near homes rather than logging special and invaluable old growth forests of Pine Mountain,” stated a letter signed by Johnston.

More than one-third of the project area is proposed for wilderness protection under the Central Coast Heritage Protection Act (H.R. 2199), approved in a bipartisan vote by the House of Representatives on Feb. 12 and which waits approval in the Senate, and further included in the National Defense Authorization Act which will go to conference committee between the two houses in the coming weeks.

“Much of the project area is in its natural state, evolved over time without the disturbance of heavy modern machinery,” said ForestWatch advocacy director Rebecca August. “Once trees are cut and the landscape is scarred by a project like this, the wilderness quality of the place is ruined.

“We hope that those who have not yet spoken make their voices heard before it’s too late.”

The Forest Service will accept comments on the project until Aug. 14. To submit a comment online or learn more about the project, visit ProtectPineMountain.org.