The US Forest Service is working with several nonprofit organizations to repair Los Padres National Forest trails and roads after extensive storm damage | cover story
The following articles were printed by Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] – Volume 24, Issue 2
The US Forest Service is working with several nonprofit organizations to repair Los Padres National Forest trails and roads after significant storm damage
BY TAYLOR O’CONNOR
A “tidal wave” of water tore through Colson Canyon Road, completely wiping it out after the area received 10 inches of rain in a day during January storms that drenched Santa Barbara County, Paul Antolini said.
“There are 30-foot-high sheer walls where the road used to be,” Antolini said. “It’s going to take quite a bit of time and quite a bit of expense [to repair it]but that represents my approach for me.”
Antolini owns and operates G. Antolini and Son, a stone quarry mining operation that has sold stone wholesale to builders’ merchants since 1953. The Jan. 9 storms shut down his business “instantly,” he said.
“As a small business owner, what keeps me up at night is the hope that I can stay solvent. With no income, it’s tough, to be honest,” said Antolini.
Located in Los Padres National Forest, east of Santa Maria, Colson Canyon Road is under the jurisdiction of the US Forest Service, making the agency responsible for repairing the road. Although federal authority has made significant progress, with most residents in the lower parts of the gorge having access to their homes, Antolini’s mining operation is further up the gorge and he can only walk to his shop.
“There’s no way I can get in, there’s no way I can put product out or, for that matter, put fuel in my gear. It’s a challenging situation,” he said. “The damage is great throughout the forest and I know it [the Forest Service] has a lot going on, but from my personal situation I try to remain solvent in business and my employees would like to have their livelihood back.”
Two months after that storm, Antolini’s shop is still closed and the road is still impassable. Both of his employees had to apply for disaster-related unemployment benefits and he had to cut his own spending to stay afloat, Antolini said.
“The sooner that road can be restored for me, the better,” he said. “If I could start shipping products again it would make a huge difference.”
Colson Canyon Road is one of many that Los Padres National Forest is working to reopen in California’s third largest forest, which damaged more than $100 million in roads, trails, campgrounds and more during January’s storms. Currently, the forest is working with non-profit organizations to assess this damage, seek and apply for funding sources, and maintain trails and roads. It will take years for the forest to return to pre-storm conditions, and the cost of damage is much higher than the forest’s annual budget.
After the January storms, the Los Padres issued a 60-day closure order on four of their five ranger districts, barring public access. Now the service is trying to issue a new closure order listing certain trails, roads and campgrounds that must remain closed due to the extent of the damage, Los Padres National Forest spokesman Andrew Madsen said.
“Damage no longer includes everything from the road [being] there to roads with huge craters in them – debris, rockfalls, tree branches,” Madsen said. “In those cases, the road hasn’t been undermined in any way, … we can reopen it.”
Updated closure details were not available prior to publication SunDeadline, but Madsen said Colson Canyon Road was “completely obliterated” and would take about two years and cost about $10 million to repair.
“The impact of the storm is well outside of our budget allocation,” Madsen said. “In our budget, these are all discretionary decisions [funds]. If we get it, we know where it’s going – $100 million total damage, that’s four to five years of our regular budget.”
President Joe Biden’s emergency disaster declaration will help free up funds, with the majority of the Forest Service’s funding stream coming from the Federal Highways Administration’s emergency assistance for federally owned roads to repair forest roads, Madsen said.
“These funds will eventually flow down once the determination is made and once it is determined they are free to flow,” he said. “We’re working with the county and state, of course, but the sources of funding are all separate.”
Trails are a whole different thing, Madsen said. These are maintained by some Forest Service employees and many non-profit organizations such as the Los Padres Forest Association (LPFA), which can apply for grants and send trail crews to perform maintenance.
Bryan Conant, executive director of the LPFA, said that shortly after the flooding, he and his trail teams got involved in storm recovery and cleared more than 206 miles of trails in Santa Barbara, Ventura and parts of San Luis Obispo counties for trail obstacles such as fallen trees, chaparral overgrowth or debris. Crews typically take photos of the damage, mark GPS coordinates to send back to the forest service, and mark the trails with small plastic flags or cairns (rock piles) to help future hikers find the adjusted trail.
“Usually one fallen tree is a big deal, a normal survey of 10 fallen trees was a big deal,” he said. “Now we’re dealing with mudslide sections where there used to be a ramp leading to a creek crossing and now it’s a 6-foot drop.”
Trail maintenance teams and volunteers reported significant trail damage every 50 feet, on average, with one crew in the Santa Ynez Valley area reporting 700 photos of trail damage, Conant said.
“As far as the trails go, there are a few frontcountry trails that are out of our pay grade. The forest service has professional trail people on their team who survey these trails and analyze the costs to determine what it takes to repair these trails. We rely on their expertise and funding,” he said. “Most of the time in the backcountry, it’s about getting in with as many people as you can, just brandishing tools, crossing one creek at a time, and hacking away.”
The impact of the storm forced the federation to overhaul its entire work program, updating some of the forest’s backcountry trails to try to get the more popular trails back into shape and train from there, he said.
“We have to start all over again,” Conant said. “We’ve been working really hard over the last five to 10 years to get these trails in shape and we have to start all over again. We’re going backwards a bit, but it’s OK. You have to do that.”
When the forest reopens, recreation seekers should expect trails in rougher conditions with more obstacles and find the trails harder to find, he said. Hikers should plan accordingly, knowing that they will be moving slower than their normal pace.
“It’s going to take a while, but nothing like this has ever happened, and most of us are familiar with those legendary years of gigantic rainfall,” Conant said. “Trees will grow back, dirt will return, and trails will return to dirt.”
Staff Writer Taylor O’Connor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.