CalFire's Problematic Practice Violates CEQA
Two weeks ago, we reported a troubling trend in timber harvest plan approvals. CalFire has been approving THPs prior to conducting necessary biological surveys for endangered, rare, and sensitive species. This practice prevents the public and state agencies like the Department of Fish and Wildlife from adequately being able to review and comment on proposed timber harvest plans.
Now, EPIC has teamed up with the California Native Plant Society, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club California, and Forests Forever to write a letter to California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot. The letter, which you can read here, documents numerous instances where CalFire has employed this problematic practice. Many of these instances have been documented during EPIC’s role in the campaign to save Jackson Demonstration State Forest. However, we believe that the problem is far more widespread than just one forest.
The letter then explains why this behavior violates the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the Forest Practice Act (FPA). CEQA and the FPA both require opportunities for public review and comment of environmental projects prior to approval. This makes sense. If the public’s participation is going to be meaningful, then it has to be prior to approval or else there won’t be any opportunity for the public’s input to affect the decision. By delaying these surveys until after the project has already been approved, CalFire has effectively robbed the public of the opportunity to review and comment on the vital environmental information they reveal.
Finally, the letter argues that, if CalFire continues this practice, the State timber regulatory program must be decertified. Private timber harvest plans in California operate under a special certified timber regulatory program that exempts them from many of the provisions of CEQA. That’s why instead of preparing an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) they prepare a Timber Harvest Plan (THP). Although the timber regulatory program is more relaxed than CEQA, it’s not meant to be the wild west. For example, THPs, as certified regulatory documents, must be “available for a reasonable time for review and comment by other public agencies and the general public.” (Cal. Pub. Rec. Code § 21080.5(d)(3)(B)).
Clearly, CalFire is failing to comply. How can a document be available for review and comment for a reasonable period of time if it isn’t released until after the public comment period ends? Under a different section of the State’s Public Resources Code, the Secretary of Natural Resources is required to decertify any regulatory program that does not comply with these requirements. We believe that should Calfire continue this practice, Secretary Crowfoot will be required to do so.