Sierra Pacific Industries, a partner in an effort to protect the ditch-flume system from fires and other disasters, says each tree marked for removal has been evaluated and is considered a threat to the water conveyance system

Some residents who live near the Tuolumne Main Canal or walk on it almost every day are concerned about plans to cut down some of the biggest, tallest, oldest trees next to the system of ditches and flumes that is the primary drinking water delivery system for 90 percent of Tuolumne County residents.

Dorothy Moulthrop walked along three-quarters of a mile of the canal Tuesday morning and pointed to and touched multiple hundred-foot tall pines more than a century old, each with a blue mark on it placed there by a contractor for removal.

“This same thing happened 20 years ago,” said Moulthrop, who has lived three decades with her husband, Richard, on or near the ditch system. “There’s a difference between cutting out overgrowth and cutting out healthy forest.”

She passed what she described as a deer crossing and pointed at places where she believes tree removals have resulted in increased, excessive erosion that is harming the Tuolumne Main Canal and the trail that parallels it.

“This blue mark here on this sugar pine,” she said, touching another tree. “This tree must be a couple hundred years old. They're clearing off so many trees, it's going to leave the ground exposed and vulnerable to slides. They're literally destabilizing sides of the ditch.”

Not alone

She wasn’t alone on the canal. Other people were walking, others were walking and fishing, and some were out there to work, including a Pacific Gas and Electric employee in a helmet and a vest, and a contractor in a helmet. At one point she pointed to about a dozen trucks visible through the trees below the canal on South Fork Road. She said they were contract tree fallers preparing to start removing trees near the ditch system.

Moulthrop said she is aware of the multi-partner Lyons-South Fork Watershed Forest Resiliency Project, intended to cut down and remove dead trees and hazard trees next to fire-prone Tuolumne Main Canal flumes and ditches in the overgrown South Fork Stanislaus watershed.

She knows the partners are Pacific Gas and Electric Company, which owns the Tuolumne Main Canal, Tuolumne Utilities District, which uses the system to deliver most of its water supply to more than 44,000 people, Sierra Pacific Industries, the Stanislaus National Forest and the Highway 108 FireSafe Council.

She is especially concerned about a stretch of the canal that passes through private property owned by Sierra Pacific Industries, which owns and manages nearly 1.9 million acres of timberland in California and Washington and is among the largest lumber producers in the United States.

“We’re concerned that rather than thinning, they’re going to clear cut,” Moulthrop said. “When they clear cut, they do harm to the forest. They leave dead trees where they shouldn’t and they allow brush and other ladder fuels to grow back.”

Dense undergrowth

Rick Barbieri, who lives on the Tuolumne Main Canal near Center Camp Road, said he, too, is worried about the trees that have been marked for removal.

“My concern is they’re going to cut down all the big trees and leave all the undergrowth, which actually creates a worse fire hazard,” Barbieri said. “Your dogwoods and all the trees that grow underneath the big trees, they won't’ survive. They need that shade.”

Sierra Pacific should be more selective choosing the trees, he said. Don’t cut them all down. Cut some some down. The big fire hazard is all the understory stuff that’s accumulated, not the big trees.

“It’s SPI land,” Barbieri said. “They can do what they want. But don’t they want a healthy forest so they can continue to harvest trees in the future?”

Healthy trees

Ann T. Williams, a resident of East Sonora, walked on the ditch Tuesday afternoon as she spoke by phone about her concerns for trees that have been marked for removal.

“I’m right by those trees now,” Williams said. She said she started walking the ditch about two and a half years ago, and she goes almost every day. “I’m very sad. They’re the older trees. I’m right by eight of them in a row that you can’t even get your arms around. They’re healthy green trees. Not beetle killed and they’re going to be cut down anyway.”

Williams said she believes too many trees have been cut away from the ditch system in some places. She said she notices places where so many trees have been cut down there is now less shade on the ditch trail. She said is a strong believer that you don’t have to cut all the trees to reduce fire hazards.

“This is a thick forest,” Williams said. “They’ve already logged uphill from the ditch, and it’s a mess. They left a lot of cut trees and a lot of fuel on the ground. My thing is cut less and be specific and clear them away, don’t cut the oldest trees. This is a landscape that’s enjoyed by so many people. Hikers, bikers, fishermen, wildlife and bisdwachting people. Dog walkers too.”

Moulthrop said she is already resigned to seeing many old-growth trees next to the Tuolumne Main Canal get cut down in the near future.

“I don’t think we’re going to save anything,” Moulthrop said. “But if anything else, the awareness is out there. It’s important people know you don’t have to go to Yosemite to see the beauty of our forest. “We recently lost 30 percent of our forest to bark beetles and drought. Why would we want to cut down all these remaining healthy trees?”

Sierra Pacific

Mark Luster, community relations manager for Sierra Pacific Industries, emphasized Tuesday the Lyons-South Fork Watershed Forest Resiliency Project is a collaborative effort.

“Our position is there are multiple agencies and a variety of professionals have made decisions on which trees are to be removed,” Luster said, speaking by phone from Lincoln in Placer County. “We don’t want to put the water system in jeopardy.”

Luster also underscored that the Lyons-South Fork Watershed Forest Resiliency Project is a community effort, not a timber harvest play for Sierra Pacific.

Each tree marked for removal has been evaluated and identified as such to best protect the flumes and the rest of the system, Luster said. Some trees marked for removal are growing so close to the canal they are growing into the berm and into the hard gunite lining in places, both of which threaten the canal itself and the drinking water supply it carries.

The SPI section of the project is happening on private property on a utility right-of-way, and the work is being performed by PG&E, Luster added. If a wildfire destroyed a section of the flume it’s estimated that most residents of Tuolumne County would be without drinking water for more than a month.

About 2.6 miles of the of the Tuolumne Main Canal transects SPI property in SPI’s Lyon’s Tract between Highway 108 and the South Fork Stanislaus River.

Pacific Gas and Electric

Brandi Merlo, with Pacific Gas & Electric marketing and communications, said Tuesday the San Francisco-based utility is working on three projects on and near the Tuolumne Main Canal.

One is ongoing fuel reduction work in collaboration with TUD and other partners. Another is vegetation management and fuel reduction around power lines as part of a community wildfire safety program and an effort to create fire defense zones.

Merlo said the project some ditch area residents and ditch users are worried about is “a green reliability hazard tree project” taking place on land owned by SPI and in coordination with SPI. The work parallels about two and a half miles of canal.

The trees are being removed because they are a hazard to the canal, meaning they are growing on the berm, lean towards the canal, have visible defects like disease and fork tops, and trees growing in the gunite which can cause cracks, Merlo said.

This hazard tree work help ensures the function and reliability of the canal and powerhouse which in turn help ensures the reliability of water delivery to TUD customers.

TUD

Barbara Balen is an advocate for the Tuolumne Main Canal and other ditch systems in Tuolumne County. She served on TUD’s board from 2003 to 2012 and was re-elected to the board in November 2016. She wrote a guest editorial for The Union Democrat in May 2015 headlined “We need to protect our ditches.”

Balen also emphasized the Lyons-South Fork Watershed Forest Resiliency Project is a multi-partner effort, and that SPI foresters have their own management objectives on their land.

Residents who have lived there 50 years and 30 years have seen cumulative effects of past forestry projects,” Balen said Tuesday. “They’ve seen the erosion and brush growing where there’s been green timber. They want to know what the objective is. To create fuel or to preserve green forest. I think they have good ideas and they need to be heard.”

Balen said she has worked with SPI and PG&E in the past and she’s confident the companies are working together to preserve the Tuolumne Main Canal. She also said it’s a complicated project, and the partners should bring residents in to take part in future.

Diana Fredlund with the Stanislaus National Forest said Tuesday she couldn’t address what was happening on SPI land because it’s private property. Though it may border National Forest lands it is not part of the Stanislaus National Forest.

“All of these agencies are working together to try to protect the forest and the trees and they've been hit with the hazard trees,” Fredlund said. “SPI has the lead on most of the work that's being done up there. SPI and PG&E. We weren't a part of he decision on which trees are to be cut.”

Fire Safe Council

Glenn Gottschall with the Highway 108 FireSafe Council said he couldn’t comment on the work SPI and PG&E are doing on SPI land. He did say the Fire Safe Council is overseeing the 5-mile-long fuel break that is a key part of the Lyons-South Fork Watershed Forest Resiliency Project.

“The thing that strikes me about cutting big trees is none of the fuel break in that same area is going to include any trees more than 12 inches in diameter,” Gottschall said. “It’s going to be five miles long, from LyonsDam to Confidence Road and Center Camp Road, and it’s going to be 250 feet wide on each side of the canal.”

Work on the fuel break took place last fall, this winter and earlier this spring, Gottschall said. There’s still work being done on it with crews from Baseline Conservation Camp. They’re taking out ladder fuels, brush and trees under 12 inches in diameter.

The Lyons-South Fork Watershed Forest Resiliency Project is funded in part by a $496,000 grant awarded in December 2016 to Tuolumne Utilities District from the Sierra Nevada Conservancy to cut down and remove dead trees and hazard trees next to fire-prone Tuolumne Main Canal flumes and ditches in the overgrown South Fork Stanislaus watershed, staff with the state agency and TUD said.

They hope forest thinning and fuel reduction treatments on about 200 acres in the Stanislaus National Forest will reduce fire hazards, allow remaining trees to better withstand ongoing drought and bark beetle attacks, and protect adjacent communities and aging flumes and ditches that are the primary drinking water delivery system for TUD and 90 percent of Tuolumne County residents.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

20743057