13 Jun 2008, 12:31am
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Did thick brush, environmental concerns worsen Martin Fire?

By PAUL ROGERS - Santa Cruz Sentinel, 06/12/2008 [here]

State officials attempted to clear brush two years ago on the piece of land a where a fire now raging in Santa Cruz County began, but much of the work was delayed and ultimately not finished because of opposition from two local environmental groups.

The fire began in an area of sandstone outcroppings known as “Moon Rocks” on the 550-acre Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve, commanders for Cal Fire confirmed. The reserve, an ancient seabed famed for its rare plants and trees, has not had a significant fire since 1948. As a result, dead trees and brush were piled high.

“It’s like the whole reserve was full of gasoline,” said Angela Petersen, vegetation management program coordinator for the forestry department’s San Mateo-Santa Cruz region.

The Moon Rocks area is well-known among locals as a hangout for teenagers, college students and star-gazers. Neighbors have complained for years about loud parties, illegal bonfires and litter.

In 2003, Petersen worked with biologists from the California Department of Fish and Game, which owns the reserve, to draw up a plan to thin the reserve using chain saws and controlled burns. They won an $80,000 federal grant to fund the work.

For three years, however, the Bonny Doon community was split. Some local residents welcomed the work. Others slowed the effort, Petersen said, by requesting numerous studies and monitoring.

“They said we didn’t have enough information to know how our activities were going to affect the listed and sensitive plants,” Petersen said. “They said by doing anything we could open up the area to invasive species.”

Two environmental groups, the California Native Plant Society’s Santa Cruz chapter and the Sandhills Alliance for Natural Diversity, raised the most objections.

Brett Hall, president Santa Cruz Chapter of California Native Plant Society, said it was unfair to blame his group’s challenges for the severity of fire.

“As far as whether that made the fire worse, no one could know,” Hall said. “Fire is part of the natural cycle of things. We certainly want to be careful about how we manage our landscapes because we all live in them.”

The project fell behind schedule as Petersen ordered biological surveys, computer maps and geological studies.

In 2006, state crews were able to clear brush along five miles of Martin Road and other adjacent roads. But Petersen withdrew plans to improve an old ranch road on the property for better fire engine access after the environmental groups protested to Santa Cruz County planners and the planners told her they were unlikely to grant a grading permit.

Not long after, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service canceled the remaining $48,000 of funding after a three-year deadline passed.

Without the money, Petersen said she was unable to do the thinning and controlled burns planned for the reserve.

“There was a lot of support by neighbors who were cheering us on,” she said. “But other people were saying, ‘What do you think you are doing? You are ruining the reserve.’”

Hall said there is not enough information yet about the cause and the spread of the fire to pass judgment. He said other factors, like homes being built into rural, fire-prone areas and years of fire suppression, are significant.

Capitola resident Vince Cheap, co-conservation chair of the native plant society, noted that there are plant species on the reserve found almost nowhere else in the world, including Santa Cruz cypress trees and Ben Lomond spineflowers.

Cheap, who challenged the thinning project at public meetings, said there were concerns that a larger management plan for the reserve hadn’t been finished and it was unknown whether work would kill endangered plants. Also, he said, grading a dirt road through a sensitive preserve is inappropriate.

“We were looking forward to having the controlled burns done,” he said. “But they said they couldn’t do the controlled burns without the road. So we got in a Catch-22. They didn’t have the data to support it.”

Petersen said the fire would have started anyway, with or without the thinning project. But she noted that had the dead ponderosa pines, huge piles of pine needles and brush been thinned, the blaze may have not exploded out of control so quickly. After it started around 3 p.m. Wednesday, it grew to 300 acres within an hour.

Although a leading community group, the Rural Bonny Doon Association, supported the thinning, some neighbors didn’t.

“The most common response was that the area was beautiful and we shouldn’t change it,” said Jeannine DeWald, a fish and game biologist in Monterey.

Steve Martarano, a spokesman for the Fish and Game Department, said that 80 percent of the reserve has now burned. Many of the endangered plants are expected to come back. Although the reserve is open to the public, nobody patrols it regularly because the state can’t afford to replace the warden for the region, he said.

The debate over thinning in the Santa Cruz Mountains raised tempers Thursday.

Bob Sohl drove down from Santa Rosa where he had taken his prized 1928 Lincoln for a car tour. He was pacing at the roadblock, waiting for clearance to see what was left of his Martin Road home.

Like many residents, Sohl suspects that the fire may have originated with partying trespassers on the Bonny Doon reserve, which he said should have had brush thinned to reduce fire hazard long ago.

“This environmental crap has got to stop,” Sohl said. “People are losing their homes and property all over a damn bush. I’m so fed up with it. Maybe now something will be done with it.”

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