The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is California’s bedrock environmental law. The goal of CEQA is simple: to ensure that the State understands the environmental impacts of its actions before making a decision whether to approve them. CEQA doesn’t forbid the state from conducting environmentally destructive activities (wouldn’t that be nice) but it does require the State to analyze the full impacts of their actions in order to facilitate informed decision making.
Normally, CEQA requires the preparation of a detailed document known as an Environmental Impact Report. But, California has exempted logging from that requirement. In order to receive this exemption, the timber industry agreed to complete timber harvest plans (THPs), which fulfill many of the same functions as an Environmental Impact Report. For example, THPs require an opportunity for public comment and interagency review. Or, at least they’re supposed to.
EPIC and our allies have noticed a troubling trend. In order to understand the environmental impact of a timber harvest, it is important to conduct botanical and wildlife surveys. These surveys are meant to reveal to the THP submitter the locations of any sensitive species. So, for example, surveys are conducted to establish whether there are any northern spotted owls nearby to the proposed logging. When owls are located, the THP can then be updated to reduce the impacts to those owls by not logging in their immediate vicinity.
CAL FIRE is the agency tasked with reviewing THPs in order to ensure that they follow the law and adequately analyze the environmental impact of each plan. Here’s the problem. CAL FIRE regularly approves THPs for which the necessary botanical and wildlife surveys have not been conducted prior to THP approval; rather the surveys are conducted after the plan is approved and amended into the plan. So, for example, when CAL FIRE approved the “Caspar 500” THP on May 5th, 2020 no botanical surveys had been conducted. Those botanical surveys are necessary to understand the location and species of any threatened or sensitive plant species that could be negatively impacted by a timber harvest. CAL FIRE eventually conducted the surveys in September of that year, but didn’t release their results to the public until April 28th of 2021.
CAL FIRE, by delaying these surveys until after the plan had already been approved, circumvented the requirements of CEQA and the THP process. There was no opportunity for other State Agencies, including the Department of Fish & Wildlife, to review the survey information. The Forest Practice Act (which governs the requirements of THPs) mandates that CDFW consult with CAL FIRE during the decision making process. The reason for this is obvious: consultation is meant to influence CAL FIRE’s decision whether to approve a THP. But, if the plan has already been approved long before the surveys have been conducted, there is no opportunity for that consultation to occur.
THPs are also meant to have an opportunity for the public to review and comment on plans before they are approved. But if the plan is approved before surveys are conducted, the public’s meaningful participation is obstructed. After the surveys were released in April, 2021, our allies at North Coast California Native Plant Society (CNPS) submitted detailed comments outlining the many errors with how the surveys were conducted as well as the potential negative environmental impacts should the THP proceed. But, because their comments were submitted after the public comment deadline (which was back in May of 2020), their comments were ignored by CAL FIRE.
The Caspar 500 THP is just one recent example of a practice that is widespread across California. EPIC believes that delaying surveys until after a THP has been approved violates the Forest Practice Act and CEQA. Because CAL FIRE is not complying with these laws, they have jeopardized their special status that allows them to prepare a THP instead of an EIR. Together with CNPS, we are working on making sure CAL FIRE ceases this troublesome practice.