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Eshom Ecological Restoration Project: A Success Story for Shared Stewardship and Innovative Solutions

Eshom Ecological Restoration Project: A Success Story for Shared Stewardship and Innovative Solutions

GBI recently was asked by CAL FIRE to contribute to an exciting project documenting successful effort to contribute to the health of California’s forests. CAL FIRE is creating an ArcGIS-based story map identifying and promoting contributions of CAL FIRE’s fuels reduction projects, grant-funded efforts, and forest health treatments on wildfire behavior, community safety, forest health, ecosystem values, and local economies. The map identifies treatments/grant project locations and fire perimeters, and it highlights success story locations with stars linked to a short writeups, photos, and maps.

Our success story of shared stewardship and innovative solutions concerns the Eshom Ecological Restoration Project:

A prolonged drought and subsequent bark beetle epidemic caused massive tree die-off in California between 2010-2019. Over 147 million trees died across 9.7 million acres of federal, state, and local private lands in California since the drought began in 2010. The Stanislaus, Sierra, and Sequoia National Forests were at the epicenter of this tree mortality event. The Eshom project area, located on Hume Lake Ranger District of Sequoia National Forest, Giant Sequoia estimated 50 percent or more of the conifers 6 inches in diameter and larger.

The Eshom Ecological Restoration Project was designed to complement other on-going efforts to restore over 5,000 acres of Forest, State, and private land.  It was identified as a critical treatment area based on coordination between Forest Service personnel and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks under their All Lands initiative, and proposed projects that CalFIRE and Oak to Timberline Fire Safe Council were developing to reduce fuels on private and state lands in the vicinity.  Early in the planning process, the Forest Service recognized implementing a biomass removal project would be challenging due to the high cost to remove dead trees of little economic value, and limited Forest Service staff to implement such a project.

Based on broad landscape scale assessment, Forest Service personnel identified the need to restore ecological conditions and processes in the Eshom project area, including actions that:

  • Improve resiliency of the remaining live trees to future drought and secondary insect/disease outbreaks by creating a highly diverse vegetation mosaic of age classes, tree size, and species composition. Retain the largest existing live trees in the project area.
  • Reduce excessive fuel load build-up resulting from drought- and insect-killed trees, resulting in areas for safe and efficient fire suppression activities especially around Hartland, other private inholdings, and the foothill communities adjacent to the project area.
  • Reduce the risk of losing old-growth forest habitat for the endangered fisher, California spotted owls, and great gray owls to drought-related causes or subsequent stand-replacing wildfire by reducing the density of the live and dead material in the stands of mature trees.

The treatments developed and analyzed by an interdisciplinary team were based on the intensity of drought damage, the proximity to facilities and evacuation routes, and the topography.  Treatments focus on the stands of drought- and insect-killed trees, and in close proximity to resources that 1) need protection from a stand-replacing wildfire event (major ingress/egress points for the Hartland camp were given priority to provide for public safety), or 2) are high priority to improve scenic integrity (Kings Canyon Scenic Byway). 

Approximately 5,025 acres of National Forest System lands were evaluated for treatment including removing dead trees (est. 1,400 acres), while leaving some standing and on the ground for wildlife habitat, masticating (shredding) (est. 1,450 acres) dense brush and small trees that would otherwise be contiguous fuel for a wildfire to spread rapidly, prescribed fire (est. 3,850 acres) to create or maintain low fuel loads, and reforestation (est. 245 acres) in areas where natural regeneration is unlikely to occur.

The Forest Service and partner organizations, including the Mule Deer Foundation, National Wild Turkey Federation, and the Great Basin Institute, strategized through discussions and field visits to finalize methods for project implementation. These organizations have increased Forest Service capacity to effectively manage the landscape and support cross jurisdictional planning and implementation measures.     

The Great Basin Institute applied for, and was awarded, a 4.8 million-dollar Climate Change Investment grant from the State of California to implement tree felling and removal, mastication, reforestation, prescribed burning, and scientific research across the Eshom project area. Great Basin Institute, Forest Service, Mulch Masters, and the City of Woodlake established a transfer and sort yard in Woodlake for biomass material removed from the project area. The yard location increased efficient biomass removal by reducing haul distance and expedited processing into wood products such as mulch and sawlogs that retain sequestered carbon.

Between July 2020 and November 2021 approximately 1450 acres of mastication and 14,460 tons of biomass were cut, decked and removed. The Eshom CCI grant included funds for expanded research by University of Nevada Reno for adapting silviculture methods to climate change.  Additional research opportunities include establishing a test plot on sugar pine adaptability to climate change and snag decay rates from the recent mortality event.

The 2021 KNP Complex Fire burned into parts of the treated and untreated Eshom project.  Across the larger landscape, approximately 2,380 giant sequoias burned to death or are expected to die within several years because of this wildfire.  Most grew in the Redwood Mountain Grove located nearby and upslope of the project area.  Fuels treatments funded by CCI supported fire suppression strategies and deployment that likely limited further loss of the iconic species in groves.  Additional post fire field surveys will confirm treatment efficacy and to further understand wildfire impacts due to reduced or increased burn severity. 

This year marks the final implementation season and prescribed burning is planned for up to 3,853 acres, though KNP Complex Fire consumed 1,932 acres of these units. GBI contractors will prepare approximately 550 acres for prescribed fire through cutting and piling and establishing control lines in 2022.

Summary of Successes:

  • 2,860 acres of fuels reduction treatments completed;
  • 23 acres of reforestation, of which 5 is associated with climate adapted silviculture and forest management;
  • Strategic and tactical deployment of fire suppression actions enhanced during the KNP Complex Fire; and
  • Protected key old growth forest dependent wildlife habitat during KNP Complex Fire.  (An individual territorial great gray owl located in the burned area as of April 2022, likely others).
Masticated unit reflecting fuels reduction
Heavy tree mortality before and after biomass removal near Eshom OHV Staging Area
View of Treated Units with Smoke from Nearby Wildfires
Biomass Removal and Residual Stand on Forest Road 15S09, Oct. 2020

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