Federal custodians of the Stanislaus National Forest are publishing a plan today detailing how they intend to stimulate recovery from the gigantic 2013 Rim Fire that destroyed 400 square miles of mountain watersheds more than two years ago.

“Recovery from an event like the Rim Fire takes years,” Jeanne Higgins, supervisor for the Stanislaus National Forest, said Thursday in Sonora. “Recovery from the 1987 Stanislaus Complex Fire took about 10 years. This is a long-term investment in recovering this landscape.”

The plan documents specific actions Higgins has decided on with input, analysis and collaboration with multiple individuals and stakeholders. Release of the plan today opens a 45-day objection period. The Forest Service is seeking critical feedback from more than 90 people and groups who have participated in reforestation planning over the past two and a half years.

“It’s a big deal, because there’s a large landscape that needs to recover,” Higgins said. “It’s huge in the fact that this is our opportunity to help this landscape become the forest we want in the future.”

Higgins said she expects a final decision on the reforestation plan will be issued by late this summer.

“After that, work can begin on the ground,” Higgins said.

Historic fire

Between August and October in 2013, the Rim Fire burned 257,314 acres, destroyed 11 houses and 98 outbuildings, leveled several residential camps, caused 10 injuries and cost $127.3 million to fight. Most of the fire damage occurred in and near the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park.

The fire is still considered the largest in 150 years of Sierra Nevada records, and the third-largest in California history, Stanislaus National Forest staff said Thursday.

More than 90,000 acres burned at high intensity in the Rim Fire, in the Stanislaus forest, in Yosemite, and on Sierra Pacific Industries lands, said Maria Benech of the Forest Service. She is designated the interdisciplinary team leader for Rim Fire reforestation.

“That’s 35 percent of the total footprint,” Benech said. “Historically, larger fires have burned 5 percent to 8 percent at high intensity. This is a concern.”

Initial planning for timber salvage efforts, roadside hazard tree removal and replanting trees began in the Rim Fire footprint in late 2013. More than 2,200 volunteers planted trees last year and this spring.

The majority of restoration work that remains to be done is included in the new plan, which is formally known as a “final environmental impact statement, draft record of decision for reforestation of the Rim Fire area.”

Trees per acre

The proposed Rim Reforestation project covers about 42,000 acres of reforestation, plantation thinning, wildlife habitat restoration and noxious weed treatment on Forest Service lands in the 2013 Rim Fire area. Target areas are specifically located in the Groveland Ranger District and the Mi-Wuk Ranger District.

Individual elements of the plan include planting anywhere from 152 trees per acre to 514 trees per acre, Benech said. More than 5,700 acres are targeted for weed eradication, which is important for wildlife habitat and native plant species recovery.

Mary Moore, a veteran Forest Service hydrologist and a Rim Fire recovery coordinator, emphasized the proposed plan’s focus on overall watershed health.

“A healthy forest equals healthy watersheds,” Moore said Thursday. “You need a healthy forest to have good, clean water. Anyone who uses the Tuolumne River watershed should be concerned.”

More than a third of the Tuolumne River watershed lies within Yosemite National Park, and it helps irrigate more than 300,000 acres in the San Joaquin Valley. Entities that draw water from the Tuolumne River include the City and County San Francisco, Modesto Irrigation District and Groveland Community Services District.

“The objection process is an opportunity for those who have been involved in the analysis process to state any concerns they might have with the draft decision,” Higgins said. “Collaborative engagement has included groups like YSS (Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions) and others. Property owners, tribes, industry and the environmental community.”