Public Records Act Request Reveals Abuse of Environmental Review Process by CAL FIRE
EPIC has unearthed documents through a Public Records Act request that show that CAL FIRE has been secretly editing questions submitted by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife on timber harvest plans submitted for the Jackson Demonstration State Forest, which is managed by CAL FIRE, as well as other THPs across the North Coast. Edits were frequently made both to substance and tone of questions in ways that appear to blunt criticism of logging regulated by CAL FIRE.
Timber harvest plans (THPs) are subject to review by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) for potential impacts to plants and wildlife. The Forest Practice Act and Rules have multiple opportunities for agencies to ask questions and submit their concerns with logging. The first of these opportunities for agency feedback is called “first review” and is an opportunity for state agencies to ask clarifying questions and to offer initial concerns and suggestions to the registered professional forester responsible for the THP.
Documents related to THPs are uploaded to the “CalTrees” website, maintained by CAL FIRE. CAL FIRE has used its control of CalTrees to edit questions submitted by other resource agencies in a way that escapes public scrutiny. CDFW and other agencies submit their questions to the forester through a form on CalTrees that is not publicly accessible. CAL FIRE then, in theory, collects all of the questions submitted and poses these to the forester responsible for the THP in a document publicly posted on the CalTrees website. But CAL FIRE has taken to altering questions submitted by the resource agencies prior to releasing the questions to the public. Not only does CDFW not receive answers to the questions they drafted but the public is also unable to see the actual questions and concerns of the agency entrusted with wildlife protection.
In a Public Records Act request, the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) obtained all questions as submitted by CDFW to CAL FIRE. By comparing these questions against those ultimately posted on CAL FIRE website, EPIC has discovered that CAL FIRE has altered questions for at least three THPs in the Jackson Demonstration State Forest.
“It’s just shocking to see CAL FIRE push around CDFW in this way,” said Matt Simmons, staff attorney with EPIC. “A state agency tasked with ensuring that logging operations are not environmentally destructive is censoring the state agency tasked with protecting wildlife in order to make it appear these logging operations are less destructive than they are.”
For example, in a recent THP in Mendocino County (1-22-00044-MEN, “Starvation 21”), CAL FIRE wholly left out questions submitted by CDFW that questioned whether proposed logging would violate guidance issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to avoid harming northern spotted owls. In another question CAL FIRE edited the question in a way to avoid asking about impacts to listed salmonids from bridge construction. All edits were seemingly completed by a CAL FIRE employee that formerly worked at the same timber company he was now charged with regulating.
By altering questions to its benefit, CAL FIRE has not only violated public trust and confidence but has also likely violated the law. The Forest Practice Act envisions a system with robust engagement by sister agencies to help avoid impacts and provides specific opportunities for engagement. CAL FIRE does not have permission to edit feedback to be more favorable to the agency. The matter has been referred to the California Attorney General’s Office for review.