An Explanation of the Timber Harvest Plan Process

By
Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

Engaging timber1273603554_Spring_2010_EPIC_KDLooking out over the hills of the North Coast region, the expansive patchwork of clearcuts and young tree plantations marks a stark contrast from the tiny patches of preserved old-growth redwood forests within parks and the Headwaters Preserve. Private timber operators logged for years without effective regulation, and nearly destroyed the integrity of forest ecosystems for all of the species that depend on them. Since the 1970s local community activists and EPIC have worked to support better logging practices and provide habitat protection in our region, by monitoring industrial timber operations through the Timber Harvest Plan (THP) process.

While the process delineated by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) for reviewing logging plans can be daunting at first glance, improvements in access to information, online mapping tools, and published opinions can help people interested in monitoring THPs participate more easily than ever before. To quickly find information about THPs online, check out thptrackingcenter.org. This website offers summaries of all THPs submitted to CAL FIRE, with interactive maps and links to CAL FIRE documents.

The THP Review Process

The THP review process for logging operations on private lands in California is defined by the California Forest Practice Rules. This set of regulations adopted by the California Board of Forestry is designed to conform to the dictates of the California Forest Practice Act and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Originating from the 1946 Forest Practice Act that was eventually invalidated, legislation to regulate forestry practices led to the Z’Berg-Nejedly Forest Practices Act of 1974 and other related laws. The THP itself is considered equivalent to an Environmental Impact Report under CEQA. To learn more about case history and related laws, see Guide to the California Forest Practice Act, co-authored by EPIC’s staff attorney, Sharon Duggan.

The THP review process is conducted by CAL FIRE, which acts as the lead agency for private logging operations. As the lead agency, CAL FIRE is charged with reviewing each THP to determine whether the project is feasible and complies with existing laws and regulations. CAL FIRE also must determine whether the plan will result in significant impacts on the environment. To make these determinations, CAL FIRE works with a host of other agencies, depending on the location and scope of planned logging operations and the environmental issues raised. The THP is generally sent to the California Department of Fish and Game, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, the California Geologic Survey, as well as to each county planning commission. In addition, neighboring landowners receive notification that a plan has been submitted, and grassroots forest advocates monitor new THPs as they are filed.

What’s in a Plan?

The contents of a THP are dictated by the Forest Practice Rules and CEQA. The THP must include information regarding the location of the plan on the landscape, and within a designated watershed assessment area. The plan must contain information regarding the kinds of silviculture (logging method) and harvesting method (yarding method) to be used. The plan must contain information regarding the location and class of watercourses associated with the THP area and the larger watershed assessment area. The plan must discuss any potentially significant impacts of the proposed logging operations to the environment and must propose feasible mitigations to prevent or offset such impacts. This analysis must include a discussion of potential resources at risk, including water, air, carbon, soil, and biological. Biological resources require the establishment of a biological assessment area within which the Registered Professional Forester (RPF) writing the plan must discuss all animals that may be impacted by operations within the plan and biological assessment areas. This includes, but is not limited to, state and federally listed species. It also must include Board of Forestry Special Species of Concern as prescribed in the Forest Practice Rules.

The plan must consider potentially significant, adverse cumulative impacts to resources associated with the THP and the designated assessment areas. To accomplish this, a discussion of past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future logging is required. Past projects are generally limited to activities within the watershed and biological assessment areas over the last ten years. Current and overlapping projects are addressed by listing associated plans with accompanied logging and yarding methods. Future projects are considered more speculatively but generally include a discussion of projects anticipated within the next 5-10 years.

One Field Inspection

Once CAL FIRE files a THP, the agencies then have ten days to conduct a Pre-harvest Inspection (PHI). This time period is often extended for all parties interested in attending to arrange their schedules and attend the field inspection. A PHI generally addresses issues raised in the First Review Team Questions by visiting a sample unit within the logging plan under review.

The issues up for discussion at this point stem from a hard-copy review of the THP by an interested agency after filing the plan but before going to the PHI. Not all agencies involved in the review attend every PHI. While one might think it would be mandatory to make a field visit to take a look at the proposed logging project, each agency can decide whether or not to attend the inspection.

Within 20 days after the PHI, a Second Review Team meeting is convened for the THP in question. Second Review is where CAL FIRE, the RPF, and the participating agencies gather to discuss the plan. The public may attend Second Review meetings, although citizens are assigned special seating. At Second Review, RPFs respond to the recommendations made at the PHI, in order to determine potential changes that may be necessary. Then, CAL FIRE is charged with determining whether the plan should be “recommended for approval” by the Regional Director.

As with the PHI, the Second Review Team meeting may be extended or postponed until the forester from the timber company responds to any issues, concerns, questions, or suggested mitigations raised during the process. Not all agency recommendations and mitigations must be accepted by the RPF. It is up to CAL FIRE to ultimately determine what suggestions, information, and mitigations must be provided in order for the THP to be approved. Of course, this means that CAL FIRE generally gets the mitigations it wants, but not so for the other agencies.

Recommendation for Approval

If any agency such as DFG or the Regional Water Quality Control Board asks for information or mitigations that are not accepted by the RPF, CAL FIRE must determine whether it will require such information or mitigations, or just proceed to recommend the plan for approval without the mitigations. In the event that CAL FIRE proceeds with a recommendation for approval of a THP without mitigations that a public agency deems important or necessary, that agency has the option to file a “letter of non-concurrence.” Agencies must submit such a letter prior to the close of public comment.

Public comment is scheduled to close within 30 days after a PHI. Public comment may be extended to allow agencies, the RPF, the plan submitter, or the public additional time. Once the plan has been approved, the timber operator then must submit a Startup Notification; these are sent to interested parties weekly through email.

Process Not Progress

Unfortunately, the process in place to approve THPs remains inadequate to ensure the health and integrity of watersheds and biodiversity in the redwood region. According to Donald Gasser of the University of California-Berkeley, “the emphasis in developing a THP has become one of documentation, diverting expertise from proper land management to proper paperwork and form filing. Substantial time and effort is now put into rule compliance rather than land management.”

While California may have the most comprehensive legal web intended to regulate private land logging in the U.S., our public-trust forest resources continue to be cut at unsustainable rates, and with methods known to cause irreparable harm to the ecosystems of our region.

Please, get involved. To find sample comments for THPs or to receive training on analyzing plans, contact EPIC at epic@wildcalifornia.org or by calling (707) 822-7711.