USA – SACRAMENTO — The state hopes to have an environmental document approved by the end of the year that could substantially increase the speed and double the scale of vegetation removal for fire safety and forest health.
Cal Fire and the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection are preparing what’s called a program environmental impact report. It would consider all the separate fire safety vegetation treatment projects in the state to be parts of a single larger program. That would allow a single EIR — or in this case a PEIR — to satisfy California Environmental Quality Act requirements for all the separate projects.
The board said such an approach is allowed if the separate projects are all similar.
Currently, each individual project has to pass CEQA muster separately, a process that’s time consuming and expensive. In a letter to the Board of Forestry, Butte County Fire Safe Council Executive Director Calli-Jane DeAnda said a project can take three years to go through the EIR process, and that the cost of preparing the necessary documents has risen to 10-15 percent of project costs.
“In the case of a small 45-acre project, the EIR costs alone could be $45,000,” she wrote.
What the PEIR seeks to do is lay out environmentally sound ways of increasing fire safety using processes including prescribed fire, hand crew clearing, mechanical clearing, targeted grazing and targeted herbicide use, in the variety of natural landscapes in California.
Then, if a project were proposed in one of those landscapes that followed the approved techniques for that landscape, environmental approval would not require a separate EIR.
“It would be more on the lines of a checklist scenario,” said Matt Dias, executive director of the Board of Forestry. He said that some projects may need additional studies to satisfy CEQA in the event of special conditions like a rare biological community or cultural sites.
But he said the simpler and quicker approach would be the rule “where appropriate. Where it’s not, there’d be more review.”
“The intention is to allow as many projects as possible to fall within the mother document.”
Dias stressed that the effort was just for non-commercial fire safety and forest health projects. “It’s not logging. That has a commercial connotation. This is not that.”
The process has been underway for a long time, part of comprehensive fire prevention strategy approved by the Board of Forestry in 2010. A preliminary PEIR is on the board’s website at https://tinyurl.com/vtppeir.
However, Board of Forestry Chairman Keith Gilless and Cal Fire Director Thom Porter held a press conference Tuesday on the state Capitol steps to announce the push to prepare the final PEIR.
Increasingly destructive fires have made it necessary to expand the amount of work done on the landscape they said. The PEIR would be a tool to allow doubling of the amount of land treated each year, said Porter, to a half-million acres a year.
The federal government has the same target, he said. That’s out of 31 million acres where the state and federal governments have fire protection responsibilities.
He said improving forest health is another goal. California’s ecologies evolved to live with inevitable fire, “and we’ve kept fire out.”
Both agreed that it wasn’t a complete solution to California’s fire danger.
Gilless called it “one arrow in the quiver,” and that zoning, hardening of structures against fire, and transportation planning all had to be part of a solution.
“If we take all the arrows in the quiver …” he said, “we can live in significantly greater harmony with the natural hazards we face as Californians, while still protecting the environment we love.”
There are opponents to the proposal, with rejection of the idea that a single program could cover the entire state a common complaint. Others are concerned about impacts to specific ecological communities, cumulative effects, and there are worries about all the things that can grow wrong.