A planned wildfire fuel break along a Gaviota ridgeline faces scrutiny in federal court as conservation groups aim to protect plants and animals that live in the path of the extensive chaparral-clearing effort. Targeting more than 210 undeveloped acres between Gaviota Peak and Refugio Pass, the proposed fuel break would stretch six miles and measure 300 feet wide, as terrain allows, essentially widening an existing narrow dirt road along the mountaintops. The acreage would also need to be re-cleared every 3-10 years, according to the plan.
The rugged region is home to the California legless lizard, mariposa lily, and Refugio manzanita, which “is found only … within a narrow band along the ridgeline … in the project area [and] exists no place else in the world,” according to the lawsuit, filed earlier this month by Oregon-based Earthrise Law Center, representing the California Chaparral Institute, based in Escondido, and Santa Barbara’s Los Padres ForestWatch. The complaint targets the U.S. Forest Service, the parent agency of Los Padres National Forest, and Los Padres Santa Barbara District Ranger John “Pancho” Smith, who signed off on the project this fall. Smith could not be reached for comment.
The complaint contends the project goes against the Forest Service’s own documentation of the species’ sensitivity and violates federal environmental protection and management policies. Los Padres spokesperson Andrew Madsen said that creating the fuel break would cost about $150,000, roughly $700 per acre. “The tentative start date is next spring,” he added, “but that will depend on the litigation.” According to project documents, the fuel break “will lessen the intensity of fire behavior … and help firefighters to more safely access and engage,” while creating a ridgetop buffer designed to prevent flames from spreading from one side of the coastal mountains to the other.
“This is not a fuel break of high priority,” said ForestWatch Executive Director Jeff Kuyper. “It’s remote there are no structures nearby. It just doesn’t make sense.” He added that the proposed route would bisect remaining Refugio manzanita chaparral communities, which Los Padres is mandated to protect.