The Proposed Vegetation Treatment Program by CalFire and the California Board of Forestry A new version of the program has been released (6/8/2017). We have yet to review it, but the previous version (2016) contained many of the same errors and misrepresentations as the previous one (2015).
CalFire plans to grind, burn, graze, and herbicide more than a half million acres of habitat in California per decade.
UPDATE 6/8/2017 A revised draft of the Vegetation Treatment Program was released. It was presented to the Board of Forestry on June 14. The official draft for public CEQA review will be released some time in the future. We are currently studying the new revision.
UPDATE 4/22/16 It is with a great sense of disappointment that the latest draft of the Vegetation Treatment Program did not correct many of the errors and misrepresentations contained in the last version. See below for details and our comment letter on this version. UPDATE 10/30/15 Our 2015 comment letter on the developing VTP. While we believe the current draft being developed is a vast improvement over previous attempts, it still contains significant contradictions and scientifically unsupportable statements that compromise the achievement of our common goal: protecting life, property, and the natural environment from wildland fire.
After numerous hearings and comments, the latest revised Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Report (DPEIR) of CalFire's Vegetation Treatment Program (VTP) was released April 1, 2016. The proposal targets approximately 22 million acres (about 1/4 of the entire state) to be burned, masticated, or sprayed with herbicides.
The Program if approved will exempt individual clearance projects from citizen and independent scientific oversight that would normally be required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
What you can do: A new 2017 version of the DPEIR has been released and can be found here. It also includes all the public comment letters on the 2016 version. This new 2017 version is NOT the final draft that will be subject to the official CEQA public review process. If you would like to take a look at it, it would be helpful if you could compare it with the 2016 version and discover any significant differences. We will be doing the same. Let us know what you find.
A summary of our comments on the 2016 draft can be found below.
In the latest draft: - Potential impacts are dismissed without support - Mitigations of impacts are unenforceable and unmeasurable - Clearance of northern chaparral is justified by logical fallacies - Research of several scientists continues to be misrepresented (despite corrections being submitted) - Lack of transparency remains a significant issue
One of the most egregious examples of the DPEIR's failure is the continued use of outdated and inadequate spatial data that provides the foundation for the entire Program. Although updated data is available from Cal Fire itself, the DPEIR ignores this rich resource and depends instead on questionable information from decades ago. As a consequence, the current EIR fails to meet the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
The DPEIR also reveals a significant number of inconsistencies as the document initially references current science to only qualify or ignore it later in order to support the Program’s objectives. By using contradictory statements, undefined terms, and legally inadequate mitigation processes, the document is a testament in ambiguity. It appears to be a program in search of confirming data rather than one developed from examining the actual problem.
The most concerning issue, however, relates to the failure of the document to provide a key component of a programmatic EIR - providinga more exhaustive consideration of effects and cumulative impacts than could be accomplished at the project level (14 CCR § 15168).
Instead, volumes of repetitive text are punctuated with the unsupported claim that determining impacts is impossible, pushing it off to project managers to determine with a checklist and standard project requirements that depend on subjective judgments.
How does the DPEIR justify ignoring a thorough examination of impacts as required by CEQA? The DPEIR vacillates between claiming the Program is too large and complex to analyze, or the actual treatment areas are too small to have an impact.
As a consequence, the current DPEIR fails to provide adequate support for concluding that the proposed program will not have a significant effect on the environment.
Briefly, the reasons for these failures include:
1. Circumventing CEQA - impacts determined to be less than significant by the “Fallacy of Authority” (our conclusions are true because we say so – no evidence provided
2. Substandard Research - misrepresenting cited scientific literature and dependence on anecdotal evidence
3. Inadequate Data - outdated fire hazard analysis model/data unsuitable for project level planning
The DPEIR also fails to properly address the impacts the Program may have on carbon emissions and the loss of carbon sequestration by the clearance of native habitats.
The Back Story
We have been involved in this process since 2005, longer than most. Here is our first comment letter on the Program. The current review process began in January, 2013. Interestingly, when we received notification about the new plan, we were moving away from environmental activism and beginning to focus more on natural history education. This misguided approach to fire protection (i.e. clearance of habitat) pulled us back into the fray.
The original comment period on the proposal ended February 25, 2013. We submitted a detailed letter along with a petition with 3,080 signatures (and citizen comments) that called on the Board of Forestry to retract its proposed habitat clearance program and to instead to work with the California Natural Resources Agency and the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water to create a Comprehensive Fire Protection Program that:
- focuses on actual assets at risk rather than habitat clearance - preserves the rights of citizens to object to destructive projects - incorporates the most current science - understands the difference between forests and other ecosystem
If you would like to view the Board's original proposal, please send us an email and we will be happy to send you a copy. The file is about 20 MB.
The basic points we made in our original comment letter include the following: 1. We Requested the Board of Forestry to retract the Vegetation Treatment Program Programmatic EIR (Environmental Impact Report) and create a program that will properly consider the entire fire environment, reflect regional differences, allow for independent oversight, and incorporate the most up to date science. 2. The Wrong Focus. This program focuses entirely on clearing vegetation, despite extensive scientific research that clearly indicates the best way to protect lives, property, and the natural environment from wildfire is by addressing the entire fire environment: ignitability of structures, community and regional planning, and science-based vegetation management within and directly around communities at risk. Leave the natural landscape alone! Concentrate where the actual risks are: in and around communities. Additional details here: Protecting Your Home 3. Inadequate Alternatives. By law this document is required to offer reasonable alternatives to the proposed program. The only differences between the alternatives offered are different mixes of methods to clear vegetation. There is no alternative that looks at the entire fire environment (see #2 above).
4. Impossible to Determine Impacts. The Vegetation Treatment Program is so generalized that it is impossible to determine its environmental impacts on wildlife, plant communities, water and air quality, visual and aesthetic resources, recreation, soils, and invasive weed spread. There are no maps showing the location of clearance projects, only estimated number of acres per region.
5. Taking Away Citizen Rights. All projects within the scope of this Program will only be evaluated by a yet-to-be formulated checklist. They will not be reviewed through the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) as they normally are now. This will prevent citizens and independent scientists from challenging a project under CEQA that they feel is environmentally damaging. Citizens have the right to have individual projects thoroughly evaluated under CEQA. 6. Underlying Bias.This proposal is based on the questionable, overly-broad assumption that past fire suppression efforts have allowed a buildup of unnatural amounts of vegetation across the landscape, thus creating a fire hazard. While it may be true that some forests have been negatively impacted by fire suppression, this is not true for many other ecosystems, especially the chaparral. The proposal takes a simplistic, forest-centric approach that attempts to make fire issues out as broadly similar across the region, when in fact they are very different. Additional details here: Fire and Science
7. Ignored Contrary Views. By law this document is supposed to make an honest effort to review points of disagreement among experts. It failed to do so in areas such as the effectiveness of vegetation treatments, prescribed burns, and impact of fire severity in forests. 8. Cumulative Impacts Dismissed. The document only considers clearance programs conducted by other agencies and timber harvest activities in determining cumulative impacts. It does not include the impact of increased fire frequency on ecosystems, such as chaparral, already impacted by such a trend. Such an approach precludes a proper analysis of cumulative effects.
UPDATE 10/6/15 A new "Notice of Preparation" (NOP) was issued for the development of a third draft of the VTP EIR. A copy of the NOP is available here. The new draft will likely be relased for public comment some time in early 2016.
UPDATE 9/1/15 At the August 26, 2015 California Board of Forestry meeting, the second draft of the EIR was presented. The board decided the EIR needed further study. The second draft is an improvement, but still contains significant problems including misconceptions regarding chaparral. We offered testimony at the meeting and offered two new research papers that refute the notion that the clearance/burning of chaparral in northern California provides ecological benefits (which the second draft inncorrectly claims).
Wilkin et al. (2015). Discusses the trade-offs of reducing chaparral fire hazard in northern California. and Newman et al. (2015). Discusses the negative impacts caused by chaparral clearance in relation to the spread of Lyme disease.
UPDATE 12/31/14 In August, 2014, the California Fire Science Consortium recommended in their peer-review report that the Cal Fire Plan, “undergo major revision if it is to be a contemporary, science-based document." The board then began the process of rewriting the document in the Fall of 2014 with assurances they would be modifying their plan by incorporating the new information and offering opportunities for the original reviewers to provide input on the developing draft.
UPDATE 2/11/14 After the board received criticism from fire scientists that the Plan did not reflect the most current research, the California State Legislature asked the California Fire Science Consortium, an independent network of fire scientists and managers, to review the document.
The "masticated" remains of a beautiful, old-growth chaparral stand near Santa Barbara.
Los Angeles Times Lead Editorial
Cal Fire's flawed fire plan
Critics say it's outdated, contains many inaccuracies and could cause major environmental damage.
March 11, 2013
California has a love-hate relationship with wildfire. We can't live with it and can't live without it. For thousands of years, fire — caused mainly by lightning — was a natural part of the landscape, which evolved to thrive on and even require occasional blazes. The cones of the Tecate cypress, for example, a tree that grows only in Southern California and Baja Mexico, will open to release their seeds only after a scorching.
Yet out-of-control fires also imperil property, homes and sometimes lives. And when they blacken the same ground too often, they devastate nature as well, creating the conditions for invasive annual weeds to dominate, weeds that take away habitat for animals and provide more combustible fuel for future fires. Most wildfires in Southern California now are caused by humans, and they're far more frequent.
Obviously, the task of protecting the public from wildfires without imperiling the balance of nature is complicated. It calls for exacting science and sensitivity to the many ecosystems found in the state — scrub, chaparral, coastal redwood forests, ponderosa pine forests of the Sierra Nevada and more.
Unfortunately, that's not what California has gotten in a draft environmental impact report from the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection that outlines fire-management plans for 38 million acres of the state — pretty much all the land that isn't controlled by the federal government. The 1,300-page Cal Fire report, called a program EIR, is intended to set out an overarching policy for deciding where and how to alter the natural landscape to curb wildfire's threat to buildings and lives. Once it is approved by the state Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, individual projects to thin or clear vegetation mechanically, spray herbicides or conduct prescribed burns would not need to undergo separate environmental studies under the California Environmental Quality Act.
For all its length, though, the report is disturbingly vague about what the state proposes to do and where. Many wildfire experts say the study is outdated on the science of fire ecology and treats very different natural landscapes as though they were the same. The state's Department of Fish and Wildlife responded to the report with serious criticisms, saying among other things that the plan could cause substantial environmental damage. A letter from the National Park Service is downright scathing, slamming the report for numerous inaccuracies, accusing Cal Fire of ignoring important scientific studies and openly questioning whether the plan even meets the legal requirements for this type of EIR.
"If implemented, the proposed program would cause significant, irreversible and unmitigable environmental impacts to natural resources in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area on a large scale, while producing few if any of the fire safety benefits stated as goals of the program. As such, it would represent a very poor use of public funds," wrote Robert S. Taylor Jr., a fire specialist with the Park Service. "I strongly recommend that Cal Fire withdraw the current proposal and produce a new one based on best available science."
Both agencies criticize the report's call for fire breaks in the backcountry, far from developed land. Most of the blazes that cause serious damage to homes, fire ecologists say, occur in the most extreme conditions — hot weather, dry vegetation and Santa Ana-strength winds. They skip right across fire breaks in the backcountry; the best way to prevent or reduce damage is to create 100 feet or so of thinned, defensible space between buildings and the wilderness so that firefighters have safe access.
Though George Gentry, Cal Fire's executive officer, concedes that the report might be too vague, he defends it by saying that plans to thin, mow, burn or spray specific areas would go through further approval processes. That isn't good enough. Future fire-mitigating actions will be based on this document, or what's the point? If the EIR is adopted, no one will be able to use CEQA, the state's signature environmental protection law, to prevent possibly useless work at taxpayer expense that also might irreversibly damage the state's wild land.
Instead of tweaking the report and taking it to the board for approval this spring as planned, Cal Fire should adopt Taylor's suggestion, withdraw the EIR and start over — consulting the experts who pointed out its flaws. If California is to have a comprehensive plan for surviving in a fire-prone region, it should be the strongest one possible.