California Oak Report
Sierra Foothills Vigil
The following articles regarding El Dorado County and Tuolumne County oak woodlands demonstrate the lengths that some local officials will go to in disregarding local and state environmental laws in order to accommodate development interests. These oak woodland stories also show that the only antidote to environmental malfeasance on the part of local officials is the vigilance and resolve of local citizens.
El Dorado County
Three justices of California’s Third District Court of Appeal have unanimously ruled that El Dorado County’s nefarious Oak Woodland Management Plan (OWMP) violated the California Environmental Quality Act. Lead plaintiffs in the case were the Center for Sierra Nevada Conservation, El Dorado County Taxpayers for Quality Growth and California Oak Foundation. The lawsuit was filed in 2008.
To settle a 1996 lawsuit the 2004 El Dorado County General Plan included provisions for an oak woodland management plan. County planners initially produced a draft OWMP that proposed to create wildlife corridors by connecting large properties north and south of Highway 50, and a program for on/off site mitigation for the loss of oak woodland resulting from development. Instead, the Board of Supervisors adopted a plan that deleted all the wildlife corridors and "protected" large parcels far removed from Highway 50 that are at low risk of development. The Board’s OWMP completely ignored the conservation of important oak woodlands nearer to the Highway 50 area where habitat fragmentation has already occurred. The Board's off site mitigation fee ("Option B") was based on the costs of conserving these remote parcels, rather than the more expensive parcels along Highway 50. The Board's adopted plan would have created more fragmentation of oak woodland habitat and limited wildlife mobility.
The County's Option B also included a dubious formula using tree canopy cover alone for measuring oak woodlands, rather than including the space between trees, thus significantly decreasing total oak woodland habitat to be protected. The appellate court expressed skepticism regarding the virtue of relying solely on oak canopy cover to delineate oak woodlands.
Rejection of the County's OWMP eliminates the ability for developers to utilize the Option B mitigation, which permitted clearing of oaks in exchange for a fee paid into a conservation fund. Now, developers will be limited in the amount of oak woodlands they can remove on a parcel, pursuant to the Option A part of the General Plan.
The case is Center for Sierra Nevada Conservation v. County of El Dorado.
The State Board of Forestry defines “forest land” as that which has 10 percent tree canopy cover within the project boundaries. The Board has jurisdiction over all California private forestlands. If local jurisdictions want to design an alternative oak woodlands delineation that substitute must be functionally equivalent to the state standard. California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) functional equivalency must be demonstrated in an environmental impact report (EIR), which would compare the environmental effects of the state oak woodland standard to the local alternative or other relevant methodologies.
Tuolumne County has developed a Biological Resources Review Guide designed to mitigate impacts to biological resources resulting from land development projects including direct/cumulative impacts to wildlife, plants, wetlands and oak woodlands – without the benefit of an EIR. Here is California Oaks’ response to Tuolumne County’s attempt to create a CEQA waiver for biological resources without environmental review:
January 26, 2012
Tuolumne County Community Resources Agency
2 South Green Street
Sonora, CA 95370
Re: Tuolumne County Biological Resources Review Guide
Dear Mr. Laird:
California Oaks (CO) appreciates the opportunity to submit Biological Resources Review Guide (BRRG) public comments. CO disagrees with Tuolumne County’s assertion that the Biological Resources Review Guide (BRRG) action “does not constitute a project and is not subject to CEQA environmental review.” This claim is particularly perplexing given that a stated purpose of the BRRG is to “establish consistent mitigation for potential impacts to biological resources pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act”. BRRG implementation will clearly have potentially significant environmental effects and it therefore requires an environmental impact report (EIR). Further, we believe the BRRG should recognize that it in no way addresses the necessity for CEQA greenhouse gas (GHG) analysis/mitigation regarding impacts to oak woodlands and other terrestrial biological resources.
CEQA requires public agencies to prepare an EIR for any action they intend to carry out or approve whenever it can be fairly argued on the basis of substantial evidence that the action may have a significant environmental effect. That the BRRG may have a potentially significant effect on the environment is irrefutable. For example, the BRRG oak woodlands definition represents a discretionary action that will have significant environmental effects on biological resources.
Oak woodland areas may be measured by tree canopy cover or by total area that includes the space between canopies. The BRRG has adopted its own hybrid definition for oak woodlands. The measurement methodology used for the BRRG oak woodland definition may make a substantial difference in the amount of habitat to be preserved because oak woodlands range in structure from open savannah to dense forest. Whether preservation of oak woodlands is governed by canopy measurement, by habitat including the area between oaks or a hybrid standard is a significant factor that will affect mitigation. Moreover, the BRRG measurement methodology may also have a large effect on how much developers must pay to mitigate the loss of oak woodlands on their parcels.
Tuolumne County adoption of the measurement methodology used for the BRRG oak woodland definition is the type of discretionary choice that must be informed by an EIR.
The California Air Resources Board’s AB32 Scoping Plan recognizes the significant contribution that terrestrial carbon storage will make in meeting the state's GHG emissions reduction goals: "This plan also acknowledges the important role of terrestrial sequestration in our forests, rangelands, wetlands, and other land resources.” The Scoping Plan has set a no net loss goal for forestland sequestration and stretch targets of increasing forestland carbon storage by 2 million metric tonnes (MMT) by 2020 and 5 MMT by 2050. Additionally, CEQA specifically addresses vegetation and land greenhouse gas emissions due to the conversion of forestland to non-forestland use (CEQA Guidelines, Appendix G, Forest Resources). The BRRG does not address the conversion of oak woodlands and other biological resources in the context of meeting AB32 emission reduction goals and CEQA GHG review standards.
Accepting comments from the BRRG Ad Hoc Committee, referring the Draft BRRG to jurisdictional agencies for comment and opening a public comment period for the Draft BRRG is not a substitute for environmental review. Discretionary actions like the BRRG require an EIR to inform the County of the environmental consequences before it adopts the plan. As the California Supreme Court has emphasized, the EIR requirement's “purpose is to inform the public and its responsible officials of the environmental consequences of their decisions before they are made. Thus, the EIR ‘protects not only the environment but also informed self-government.”’
Janet Cobb, Executive Officer
California Oaks would like to share with you a free booklet titled Confessions of a Gall Hunter written by Ron Russo who has also published a book on the subject, Field Guide to Plant Galls of California and Other Western States (University of California Press, 2007).
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