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The Jackson Demonstration State Forest Management Plan Revisions Require Environmental Review

On behalf of EPIC and the Save Jackson Coalition, EPIC Staff Attorney Matt Simmons submitted the following comments regarding revisions to the Jackson Demonstration State Forest (JDSF) management plan to the Jackson Advisory Group (JAG) on September 8, 2023:

Western entrance to Jackson Demonstration State Forest.
Western entrance to Jackson Demonstration State Forest. Photo by Missvain via Wikipedia (CC BY 4.0).

Jackson Advisory Group

Jackson Demonstration State Forest Headquarters,

California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection

802 North Main Street

Fort Bragg, CA 95437

(707) 964-5674


Re: The Management Plan Revisions Require Environmental Review


Dear members of the Jackson Advisory Group,


Please accept these comments on behalf of the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) & the Save Jackson Coalition regarding environmental review of the management plan revisions. We have attached several of the documents cited here for inclusion in the record. We will also be providing additional comments regarding other aspects of the Scope of work. We felt that this topic warranted its own focused comment letter.


I. Background

At the March 15, 2023 JAG meeting, CAL FIRE presented a draft “Scope of Work” to hire a consulting firm to provide public review of the current management plan and to develop a revised/new management plan. The Scope of Work included 15 public meetings, 3 Tribal Advisory Council Meetings, and developing a revised/new management plan. The Scope of Work did not include environmental review. This Scope of Work was further discussed at the June 6th, 2023 JAG meeting. In response to a question from myself at that meeting, CAL FIRE staff stated that they would not be performing any CEQA for the new management plan. In their words “we plan on designing the management plan so that it doesn’t require environmental review.” The plan would be “very goal setting but not as a prescriptive that it would require environmental review.”


On July 7th, I sent a letter on behalf of EPIC & the Save Jackson Coalition asking CAL FIRE to amend the scope of work to include environmental review. As of the date of this letter CAL FIRE has not amended the scope of work to include environmental review or indicated that they are willing to conduct environmental review.


The following comments outline the need for environmental review of the JDSF Management Plan Revisions. EPIC believes that environmental review is not only good policy but is also legally required for a project of this importance. As representatives of the public, we urge you to use your position to request from CAL FIRE and the Board of Forestry that the management plan revisions undergo comprehensive environmental review.


II. Environmental Review Is Required for Projects That May Cause a Change in the Physical Environment

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is the bedrock of California’s environmental

protection laws. CEQA requires all State agencies to consider the environmental impacts of all discretionary actions which “may cause either a direct physical change in the environment, or a reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change in the environment.” This includes documents like land use plans and management plans which, although merely pieces of paper, may have a very real impact on the environment. Environmental review is not required for discretionary projects only in the rare instances where "it can be seen with certainty" that a project will not have a significant effect on the environment.


By deciding not to conduct any environmental review for the new management plan, CAL FIRE and the Board of Forestry are admitting to one of two scenarios. Either the new management plan will have zero impact on the environment and therefore CEQA will not be triggered, or the new management plan will impact the environment but CAL FIRE and the Board of Forestry are choosing to obscure that fact by avoiding environmental review. Both of these scenarios are unacceptable.


The first scenario is unacceptable because the JDSF management plan should impact the environment. The whole point of reviewing the management plan early is to address the management shortfalls of the current management plan. In order to address those shortfalls, the new management plan necessarily must change the environment. Without doing so, the plan cannot fulfill its promise. The second scenario is unacceptable for obvious reasons. CAL FIRE and the Board of Forestry should not attempt to obscure the true environmental impacts of their management decisions.


Environmental review is required by law and CAL FIRE and the Board of Forestry should follow the law. Doing so would help CAL FIRE and the Board of Forestry successfully implement their new management plan and vision. As representatives of the public, we urge you to request that CAL FIRE and the Board of Forestry follow the law and conduct environmental review of the revised/new management plan. This is a simple step that you can take at the September JAG meeting.


III. Future Environmental Review of Timber Harvest Plans Does Not Remedy This Problem

CAL FIRE staff have argued that environmental review for the overarching management plan is not necessary because future individual timber harvest plans will undergo environmental review. These individual environmental reviews do not cover the same breath of issues as an environmental review of the entire management plan and do not negate the need for a broader environmental review of the entire plan.


First, many activities within the forest do not occur within the context of a timber harvest plan. CAL FIRE conducts herbicide treatments, repairs roads, builds trails, and conducts many other activities outside of the context of timber harvest plans. Environmental review of an overarching management plan would allow for consideration of the impacts of these impacts holistically.


Second, while each individual timber harvest plan has a cumulative impacts section, those sections are notoriously barebones. Often, they simply make a list of the other timber harvest plans in the watershed. A comprehensive environmental review of the management plan for the entire forest would give CAL FIRE, the Board of Forestry, and the public a better understanding of the current conditions in the forest, particularly the effects of the past years operating under the current management plan. An environmental review of a forest-wide management plan would also give an opportunity to consider alternatives, including different intensity levels of management.


These are necessary considerations in order to make an informed decision regarding the content of the revised/new management plan. CAL FIRE ought to be collecting as much information as possible so that the JAG, the public, the Board of Forestry, and the local Tribes can make fully informed decisions regarding the objectives of the plan.


IV. Previous JDSF Management Plan’s Have Undergone Environmental Review & Similar State Documents Have Undergone Environmental Review

CAL FIRE and the Board of Forestry are breaking from past practices by not conducting environmental review. The 2007 Management Plan was completed with an accompanying EIR. The 2016 Update continued to rely on the 2007 EIR. Conducting environmental review for state forest management plans was standard practice until recently. It is true that other State Forest Management Plans have been completed without environmental review since 2020. However, that practice has not yet been tested in the courts.


Other state agency land management plans typically also undergo environmental review. California Department of Fish & Wildlife has undergone environmental review for its land management plans. State Parks has undergone environmental review for its general plan updates for state parks. Surely the decisions made regarding the intensity of management within Jackson Demonstration State Forest in the management plan update will have at least as much environmental impact as any decisions made within a State Park General Plan.


During the last major management plan revision, CAL FIRE and the Board of Forestry made significant changes to the land use allocations within the forest. For example, CAL FIRE and the Board of Forestry demarcated specific acres as suited for matrix forestry or older forest development. Presumably, a thorough review of the management plan would entail reconsidering these allocations and potentially adjusting them. Changing the intensity of allowable use for specific areas of land would certainly constitute a CEQA project in any other context, for example a zoning change within a city’s general plan.


V. CAL FIRE and the Board of Forestry’s Decision to Design The Management Plan To Be Advisory Conflicts With State Law

At the previous Jackson Advisory Group meeting, CAL FIRE staff stated that they would not be performing any CEQA for the new management plan. In their words “we plan on designing the management plan so that it doesn’t require environmental review”. The plan would be “very goal setting but not as a prescriptive that it would require environmental review.” The intent appears to be to redesign the JDSF Management Plan so as to be so general and advisory that it does not constitute a project under CEQA. This intent goes against State Law.


With regards to the management of State Forests, Public Resources Code Section 4645 states “[t]he department, in accordance with plans approved by the board, may engage in the management, protection, and reforestation of state forests.” State law specifically requires CAL FIRE to follow the management plan after it has been approved by the Board of Forestry. This is meant to be an important check on CAL FIRE’s authority within these State Forests. By explicitly designing the management plan to be general and advisory, CAL FIRE is circumventing this check on their authority. CAL FIRE cannot manage the forests “in accordance with [a plan] approved by the board” if the plan is not prescriptive. There would be no measuring stick against which to judge whether CAL FIRE was following the plan. Accordingly, CAL FIRE must design a management plan that is both specific and prescriptive in order to comply with Public Resources Code Section 4645.


VI. Not Conducting Environmental Review Is Contrary to The Intent of the Early Review of the Management Plan

On May 5, 2022, CNRA and CAL FIRE requested a full review of the Management Plan from the JAG and Board of Forestry. That request states “[t]he Jackson Demonstration State Forest Management Plan is the document that guides all the management activities for the forest.” This early review was in response to community protest, tribal consultation, and pressure from CNRA and Senator McGuire regarding the existing management plan. CAL FIRE presented the management plan review as an olive branch, an attempt to change the “vision” for the forest for the better. As stated above, in order for this review to actually fulfill CAL FIRE’s stated goal, it must have an impact on the environment and doing that requires environmental review. If the plan revisions won’t improve the environment, then they aren’t worth doing.


VII. Environmental Review Fosters Tribal Consultation & Protects Native American Cultural Sites

Foregoing CEQA will also negatively impact local Native American tribes. Recent amendments to CEQA contained in AB 52 significantly strengthened tribal consultation requirements and the ability of tribes to influence environmental decision-making within their ancestral territory. By deciding not to conduct CEQA, CAL FIRE and the Board of Forestry skirts those requirements and dilutes Tribal power contrary to their stated intention.


CEQA also contains specific protections for Tribal cultural resources and historic sites. AB 52 specifically amended the Public Resources Code (§ 21084.2) to state that a project that may cause a substantial adverse change to a tribal cultural resource is categorically a “project” under CEQA. The last comprehensive investigation of archeological resources on JDSF was conducted by CAL FIRE archeologists in 1999. The report is known as the Betts Report. The Betts Report identified numerous tribal cultural resources throughout the forest and more have been identified during timber harvest plans since. With regards to the importance of these resources the Betts Report states, “all of the prehistoric archaeological sites on JDSF should be considered potentially significant.” The decisions made within the management plan have the potential to cause “substantial adverse changes” to these resources by permitting harmful activities. Therefore, the management plan is a “project” under CEQA due to this provision as well.


VIII. Environmental Review is Required Due to the Presence of Cultural Sites Eligible for Inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places

The Betts Report also recommended that the cultural resources within JDSF be added to the State Register of Historic Places When Warranted. The report states in full: “The aggregate of these sites appears to meet the criteria of significance for National Register of Historic Places as an archaeological district. The physiographic distinctiveness of the redwood forest and the range of variation of site types warrant register eligibility at the district level. Several sites also appear to meet the criteria of significance on an individual basis. Any newly discovered sites would also be eligible as a contributing element to the aggregate of interrelated properties.”


This archeological district is currently under consideration for inclusion in the California Register of Historic Places. The Tribe has begun working with the State Office of Historic Preservation to list the district. CEQA specifically states that projects which may cause a substantial adverse change in the significance of a site that is “eligible” for inclusion on the California Register of Historic Places cannot be exempted from CEQA. The project could impact the archeological district. Therefore, the project should not be exempt from CEQA.


IX. Environmental Review Is Necessary Because Co-Management Will Impact the Environment on JDSF

On September 25, 2020, Governor Newsom issued a Statement on Administration Policy entitled “Native American Ancestral Lands”. The Statement instructed all State Agencies to seek opportunities to support tribes’ co-management of all natural lands under the ownership of California. CAL FIRE has stated publicly that they intend to form co-management agreements with each of the local Tribes with ancestral ties to JDSF. The proposed scope of work lists tribal co-management as a “primary objective” in JDSF.


If these co-management agreements are to have any real substance, then they will necessarily have an effect on the environment. For example, the Tribes may wish to preserve certain places for cultural heritage preservation which are not currently protected from logging. As another example, Tribes may wish to introduce traditional cultural management techniques such as cultural fire, gathering, and more back into the forest. The effects of these activities should be considered during environmental review. In addition, during environmental review the agency could consider methods to monitor the environmental effects of co-management agreements going forward.


X. CEQA Fosters Public Participation & Good Governance

The California Environmental Quality Act requires agencies to solicit feedback from the public concerning projects. Fundamental to the law is the assumption that the public has knowledge concerning the environment that would benefit agencies in their decision-making. State agencies are required to consider this public input and respond to it, providing explanations and justifications for their actions. This process strengthens projects and helps create public trust in State management of the environment.


By choosing to abstain from CEQA, CAL FIRE and the Board of Forestry are limiting that public input. True, the Scope of Work states that there will be public listening sessions, but will CAL FIRE be required to respond to the public’s concerns as they are during a CEQA process? Will the public have any recourse should CAL FIRE and the Board of Forestry ignore the best science or fail to mitigate for environmental impacts?


CEQA also imposes upon the State a duty to disclose to the public the full extent of the environmental consequences of their policies and decisions. Jackson is public land. How it is managed, and the extent of acceptable environmental impacts is the business of the general public. By conducting environmental review, CAL FIRE and the Board of Forestry can gather valuable information regarding the current best science regarding forest management and disclose that information to the public. Environmental review of a management plan is also an opportunity to consolidate years of scientific research and previous environmental reviews that have been conducted on Jackson and make that information available to the public. Finally, environmental review would allow the public to get a better sense of how the past decades of State management have effected the environment in JDSF. All of this information is valuable, both to inform the public and also to inform decision makers regarding the content of the management plan.


XI. Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, we strongly urge you to request from CAL FIRE and the Board of Forestry that the management plan undergo a thorough environmental review. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.


Sincerely,

Matt Simmons

Staff Attorney

Environmental Protection Information Center

145 G Street, Suite A

Arcata CA 95521

(310) 666 8912


List of Attached Documents Included with These Comments to Be Included In The Record:

  1. Statement by Kevin Conway, JAG meeting, June 6th, 2023, recording available courtesy of Chad Swimmer (File Name: Management Plan Discussion.M4A)

  2. Environmental Impact Report for the Draft Jackson Demonstration State Forest Management Plan Alternative G, SCH # 2004022025, California State Board of Forestry & Fire Protection (May 30, 2007)

  3. California State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, Addendum to the Environmental Impact Report for the Jackson Demonstration State Forest Management Plan (Jan 2017)

  4. Draft Program Environmental Impact Report Land Management Plan for the Carrizo Plains Ecological Reserve SCN# 2012111069 (California Department of Fish & Wildlife).

  5. Draft Environmental Impact Report for the Proposed Red Rock Canyon State Park General Plan Revision Project, State Clearinghouse #2008121026

  6. Draft Environmental Impact Report for the Carmel Area State Parks General Plan, State Clearinghouse #2012041016, (July 30, 2018)

  7. John Betts, The Current Status of Prehistoric Resources on Jackson Demonstration State Forest, Mendocino County, (1999)*

* Due to the sensitive nature of this document, we will not be submitting it as a separate document as public comment. We believe that CAL FIRE and the Board of Forestry are already in possession of this document as the research was conducted on the Jackson Demonstration State Forest and was prepared on behalf of CAL FIRE. Please consider this document part of the record without making it available to the general public.


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