Tuolumne County is already seeing progress from a much-hyped “master stewardship agreement” with the U.S. Forest Service that elected officials approved in late December to boost the pace and scale of tree-thinning projects in the Stanislaus National Forest.

The county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved the first project through the agreement that aims to remove 5 million board feet of commercial timber and 50,000 tons of biomass across nearly 1,000 acres of the forest.

To put the numbers in perspective, the amount of biomass proposed to be removed is roughly equivalent to the average weight of a U.S. Navy battleship. Five million board feet of timber would produce enough lumber to build about 310 homes.

Mike Albrecht, a logger and co-owner of Sierra Resource Management Inc. near Jamestown, said the amount of timber is also roughly 10 percent of the average amount sold in the forest each year.

“This is not replacing the Forest Service’s annual timber program,” he said. “This is additional.”

Albrecht also said the 50,000 tons of biomass is about one-third of the amount needed to power the Ultrapower Chinese Station biomass-energy plant in Chinese Camp for a whole year. He called the project and overarching agreement “really important” for the future of the plant.

The project will be structured in the form of a commercial timber sale, with all of the profits going back into the agreement for future projects.

Timber-industry giant Sierra Pacific Industries, which operates mills in Standard and Chinese Camp, is one of the 24 partners that’s participating in the agreement and will donate its biologists to conduct the required wildlife and vegetation surveys prior to the sale.

The Forest Service will also chip in $160,000 for the project.

Albrecht said the project and others through the agreement will help keep the local timber industry strong and create jobs, as well as prevent wildfires and improve watershed health by reducing tree overcrowding in the forest.

“A lot of this is being done just because we believe in it,” he said. “We need to thin these forests rapidly to prevent fires and improve water yields.”

Tuolumne River Trust, a nonprofit river advocacy organization with offices in Sonora, Modesto and San Francisco, was approved by the board on Tuesday to manage the projects under the agreement.

The trust is one of the 24 partners along with SPI that collectively comprise the multidisciplinary collaborative group called the Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions, which was formed in 2010 but rose to greater prominence after the 2013 Rim Fire.

Partners in the group represent a broad range of interests, including county government, environmental organizations, logging companies, mining companies, industry associations, tribal representatives and more.

Under the agreement, the Forest Service will cover 80 percent of project costs and partners will pay for the remaining 20 percent through grant funding, in-kind contributions, or other potential sources.

District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan remarked at how the agreement is an example of what’s possible by finding common ground and working together.

“So much of the success is because of the partnerships that are formed,” Brennan said. “This is going to pay huge dividends in our county for safety, forest health and economic development.”

The board has been working on the agreement for the better part of seven years.

Such agreements, which were first authorized by Congress in 2003, allow the Forest Service and a partner to identify high-priority projects and let the partner carry out the projects over the course of 10 years.

District 2 Supervisor Randy Hanvelt said he believes the agreement with the county represents a “cultural change in the U.S. Forest Service.” He also gave credit to Stanislaus National Forest Supervisor Jason Kuiken, who was hired in October, credit for helping to foster the change.

“This is such a huge step forward,” Hanvelt said. “We’re going to improve safety, improve our watershed, improve our environment. Everything is going to be a winner in this.”

Hanvelt also said the new $1.3 trillion federal omnibus spending bill passed Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump in March allows for the agreement to be extended an additional 10 years.

District 3 Supervisor Evan Royce said he was at first skeptical when Hanvelt brought up the idea of the agreement seven years ago, but he now believes that it “truly is a fundamental change in the way things are done.”

“To see incentives aligned between industry and environmental communities is really I think the core root of the success of this,” he said. “You’re giving people reasons to work together.”

The board also approved county staff to submit an application for a $14.7 million grant through Cal Fire to fund multiple projects under the agreement that would remove an additional 125,000 tons of biomass across 12,550 acres of the forest.

Funding for the grant comes from the state’s greenhouse gas reduction fund that’s comprised of cap-and-trade revenues and intended for projects to restore forest health, protect watersheds, promote long-term storage of carbon in the forest, and minimize the loss of carbon from large wildfires.

If the county receives the grant, the deadline for the work to be accomplished is March 30, 2022.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.

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