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September 10, 2013

Tuolumne River Trust launches Rim fire restoration campaign

The Tuolumne River Trust on Tuesday launched a campaign to repair the Rim fire’s massive damage to the river’s watershed.

The Tuolumne River Trust on Tuesday launched a campaign to repair the Rim fire’s massive damage to the river’s watershed.

The group said tens of millions of public and private dollars will be needed for erosion control, reforestation, campground repair and other work in the burn area, which stood at 254,685 acres and 80 percent containment as of Tuesday morning.

“Wildfire is part of nature, but this was a catastrophic wildfire,” said Patrick Koepele, the trust’s deputy executive director, who now leads its Rim Fire Recovery Campaign.

He and other leaders held a telephone press conference from San Francisco, where the trust is based. It also has offices in Modesto and Sonora.

Executive Director Eric Wesselman said the restoration cost will not be known until the scorched parts of the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park are assessed by the federal Burned Area Emergency Response team.

The blaze, believed to have started from a hunter’s campfire north of Groveland on Aug. 17, has roared through brush, timber, 11 homes and 97 outbuildings.

The fire covers about 40 miles of the “wild and scenic” stretch of the Tuolumne, a 1984 federal designation that barred further dam projects. The flames burned part of the watersheds for the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts and a San Francisco-owned system that serves much of the Bay Area.

The trust is calling on Congress to invest money in the restoration, which will start this fall with erosion controls to protect the water supplies. That will be followed by salvage logging in some parts of the national forest, which produces usable lumber, and planting of new trees.

Wesselman said the trust will work with the timber industry and federal land managers on long-term efforts at forest health. This includes logging of some of the trees out of dense stands and prescribed burns that mimic the low-intensity fires that used to prevent fuel buildups.

“We’ve always been an advocate for thinning projects and fire reduction in the watershed,” Wesselman said.

Yosemite does not allow logging other than removal of hazardous trees.

Much of the burn area looks like a moonscape, but the federal team could find places where the fire did not burn so fiercely and some of the forest canopy survived.

“We are dealing with a mosaic,” Wesselman said. “There’s green in places, and that will aid the recovery.”

Trust leaders said the fire is an economic blow to the whitewater outfitters who long have led rafters on a famous stretch of the Tuolumne north of Groveland. The group’s website has a video of the fire damage, made by Steve Welch, general manager of ARTA River Trips.

Deputy general manager Isaac Ingram, reached at ARTA’s office in Groveland, said the fire damaged grassy, south-facing slopes that could recover fairly quickly, and oak and pine stands on the other side that could take longer.

“From the riparian area on the water’s edge to about 10 or 20 feet up, it’s still green and beautiful, but the hillsides are burned,” he said.

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