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Hidden Wonders of Our Threatened Chaparral Forest

Woodlands Being Clear-Cut at an Alarming Rate


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Santa Ynez Mountains rise majestically above Santa Barbara’s South Coast, forming a scenic evergreen backdrop that enhances the stunning beauty and quality of life in our communities. These rich, green, chaparral-covered hills perched above the vast blue Pacific Ocean create a postcard-like setting that gives Santa Barbara its Mediterranean feel.

Unfortunately, the deep-rooted chaparral woodlands that literally hold our mountainsides together during rainstorms are being clear-cut at an alarming and increasing rate, without regard for their beauty or ecological values. Hundreds of acres have been felled and more land is being clear-cut each day. Many of these clearings are in remote, natural areas not located near homes or populated areas. Tragically, the County currently has no effective policies or ordinances to protect the hillsides, wildlife habitats, and people living downhill from steep, clear-cut mountainsides.

Importance of Chaparral: Chaparral is a beneficial native plant community in Santa Barbara County as well as globally. Chaparral occurs only in some Mediterranean climates and only on a small percent of the Earth’s surface. It is one of the rarest habitats on Earth.

Local chaparral forests harbor many unique species. Some, like the Santa Ynez Walking Stick, are found nowhere else in the world. Our chaparral community harbors at least 40 special-status species including: the side-blotched lizard, the late-flowered mariposa lily, the silvery legless lizard, the American badger, the coast patch-nosed snake, the Santa Barbara honeysuckle, the California newt, and the elusive ringtail.

Chaparral also supports hundreds of plant species which control erosion and protect people from landslides and flooding. When rain falls the chaparral plants capture the raindrops and allow them to trickle into the soil, recharging our groundwater basins.

Species that live in our creeks, including the endangered steelhead, also benefit from chaparral. Creeks would be filled with mud and debris without these woodlands that protect against erosion and sedimentation. Stream flows would dwindle without the rain-capturing chaparral, and fish, frogs, turtles, and other creatures would quickly disappear.

In addition, chaparral can actually help reduce fire hazards. As chaparral is removed, more ignitable non-native annual weeds such as thistle can invade, exacerbating rather than reducing fire hazards. This is already occurring in Santa Barbara County and throughout southern California. Maintaining a healthy chaparral forest is an important step towards preventing the ignition of fires.

Protecting Chaparral Habitats: Despite the many benefits that chaparral provides, Santa Barbara County regulations offer little protection. In fact, the county’s Brushing Ordinance allows unlimited chaparral clear-cuts and does not trigger any environmental protection measures. An update to this 30-year old ordinance is long overdue. Like other county ordinances, the Brushing Ordinance needs a public process for addressing ecological concerns. Any serious impacts – like increased flooding and loss of habitat for endangered wildlife - should be avoided or minimized. Unfortunately, sensitive chaparral habitats are being removed with no public notification, no county review, and no concern for the rare plants and animals that call chaparral home.

Fire Safety in Chaparral Areas: Chaparral should be cleared to create defensible space around homes for wildfire protection. This protects people and homes from fires and can halt the spread of a house fire. When directed by the Fire Department, clearing for fire protection is appropriately exempt from the Brushing Ordinance.

In order to maximize fire safety in mountain neighborhoods and the wildland-urban interface, we believe that:

• Defensible space should be created and maintained around all homes and access roads.

• Homes should be actively fire-proofed through replacement of wood shingles with tiles, and other measures;

• New homes should not be constructed in high fire-hazard areas because they put lives at risk, burden our overtaxed fire response system, and can be sources of wildfire ignition; and

• Orchards should be encouraged, planted, and maintained in foothill locations as fuel breaks between chaparral habitats and residential neighborhoods.

Financial resources for fire safety are limited and should be used to promote defensible space and to fireproof homes instead of to clear-cut remote wildland chaparral habitats. Focusing clearing around homes and roads will protect our community from wildfire, will avoid erosion and flooding, and will protect our watersheds and wildlife habitats.

Lessons Learned from the Chaparral Forest: Chaparral habitats are ecologically fragile. The many plant species help prevent erosion, landslides, and flooding, enhance groundwater recharge, provide homes for dozens of rare animals, and form our communities’ gorgeous scenic backdrops. Clearing chaparral for fire safety can be a necessary and important tool for community fire preparedness, and clearings directed by the Fire Department are properly exempted from county rules and regulations. Poorly planned and unnecessary chaparral clearing projects, however, damage local watersheds and ecosystems and increase risks to our communities.

The county should update its planning tools so that fire safety measures protect the public’s right to healthy watersheds. This would balance important community interests including fire safety and better protection for the many birds and wildlife species that reside in our beautiful but threatened chaparral woodlands.

Brian Trautwein is an environmental analyst with the Environmental Defense Center. Eddie Harris is president of the Santa Barbara Urban Creeks Council and a retired Santa Barbara County firefighter.

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