Sky View Road, near the epicenter of the Oak Fire, which destroyed 56 structures in Mendocino County, as seen on Sept. 15, 2020. (Mathew Caine/Willits Weekly)
In the foothills of Mendocino County, where stretches of flat grazing land give way to thick brush and towering conifers, sits the community of Brooktrails.
Idyllic, picturesque — and primed for burning. Most of its 3,800 residents fled their homes in 2020 when the Oak Fire ignited north of town. Evacuees funneled onto Sherwood Road, the only route down the hillside and away from the flames.
Residents fear the next blaze could burn straight across the community and the town's only evacuation route won't be enough.
But the people of Brooktrails don't need to fear being trapped. For two years, a local wildfire safety nonprofit, Sherwood Firewise Communities, has sought to clear a series of old, overgrown logging and emergency access roads that could provide alternative paths out of town. The roads also would allow fire engines into the community, easing congestion on existing evacuation routes. In March 2020, months before the Oak Fire, the nonprofit secured a grant from Cal Fire for over $447,000 to complete the project. But as of March, only four of the 20-plus miles of planned evacuation and access roads have been cleared. Most of the project is still waiting on paperwork and approvals.
Area residents, who had to evacuate before, are worried about the slow progress.
"It makes me very angry, very cynical, [and] frustrated," said Brooktrails retiree Luis Celaya, 85. "This is something that is so important and the potential is so high that a fire could happen."
A monthslong investigation by CapRadio and The California Newsroom found that projects across the state, like the one in Brooktrails, are encountering a bureaucratic bottleneck before shovels can even break ground. The state's byzantine environmental approval process, required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), is slowing projects from Mendocino County to the Sierra Nevada to the Central Coast. The landmark environmental law was intended to protect ecologically and environmentally sensitive landscapes. But foresters worry that the glacial pace of environmental approvals under CEQA may lead to a much worse outcome — extreme wildfires obliterating these areas.
To combat this, Gov. Gavin Newsom's administration launched a program more than two years ago that promised to break the logjam, by fast-tracking environmental reviews. But that program, called the California Vegetation Treatment Program (CalVTP), hasn't led to the completion of a single project so far. This stands in stark contrast to projections by the state Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, which anticipated CalVTP would lead to 45,000 acres of completed work in its first year.
Keith Rutledge, project manager for Sherwood Firewise Communities in Brooktrails, told CapRadio and The California Newsroom that he had never heard of CalVTP. The nonprofit instead used the established system to satisfy CEQA to clear the first few miles of road, which took over a year. When they later asked a Cal Fire representative about using CalVTP on the rest of the project, the representative discouraged them from using the new program, cautioning it would be even more burdensome, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter.
Other experienced foresters said they didn't know how to use the new system, which includes many new bureaucratic processes. The Board of Forestry did not respond to inquiries about its outreach and training for CalVTP; the earliest training webinar available on the board's website is dated more than a year after the program's launch. As a result, many foresters use the sluggish CEQA system they already understand.
Money is not the problem. The state set aside roughly $1.5 billion for fire mitigation and forest resilience last year. Cal Fire is scrambling to get this money out the door, and many projects across the state are funded. But the clock is ticking. Without the green light to complete prescribed burns, fuel breaks and vegetation thinning, nearby communities are at the mercy of another wildfire season that threatens to be just as devastating as the last two, which burned nearly 7 million acres combined.
Though not a single CalVTP project has been completed, Lisa Lien-Mager, deputy secretary for communications at the California Natural Resources Agency, claimed in a series of emails that the state's efforts to speed up environmental reviews have shown early signs of success. She declined repeated requests for an interview.
Newsom did not respond to an interview request, though a spokesperson acknowledged receiving the inquiry.
To help meet the state's responsibility, the Newsom administration launched CalVTP in late 2019. The program promised to streamline the time-consuming environmental approval process for forest management projects. CalVTP completed a massive environmental review on more than 20 million acres in California. The idea was for new projects to cut through red tape by using this existing environmental review template instead of starting from scratch.
When the program launched, Newsom hailed it as a way to "increase the pace and scale of critical vegetation treatment in a way that safely and responsibly protects our environment."
"The scale of the wildfire crisis in California is unprecedented, and we need a response to match the scale and severity of this challenge," he said.
The Board of Forestry projected CalVTP's output would skyrocket after its first year, setting a goal of accomplishing approximately 250,000 acres through CalVTP — half the state's annual target — every year by 2024. Achieving this lofty target would mean completing hundreds of projects annually, according to the board's estimates.
But more than two years into the program, it hasn't resulted in a single completed project. A handful of local groups have begun projects using CalVTP, but it's unclear how much progress they've made, because the Board of Forestry only collects data on a project when it's finished. As of late March, the Natural Resources Agency said only 26 projects had been approved and another 45 proposals were being reviewed.
The agency did not provide current figures on the number of project acres approved through CalVTP. In December, it told CapRadio and The California Newsroom that the program had approved 28,000 acres.
"This is not enough by any stretch of the imagination," said Char Miller, professor of environmental analysis and history at Pomona College, who has monitored the development of CalVTP. He says California has millions of acres in desperate need of forest management and fuel reduction.
Nevertheless, officials in the Newsom administration have continued to gloss over CalVTP falling dramatically short of its goals.
"The California Vegetation Treatment Program, this one-stop shop for permitting … is now in action," said Wade Crowfoot, California Natural Resources Agency secretary, at a legislative oversight hearing in early February. "And it's starting to be used."
Lien-Mager, with the Natural Resources Agency, did not address specific requests for comment regarding Crowfoot's remarks.
In interviews, foresters and fire prevention experts around the state said they still don't fully understand how the program is supposed to work. Others were turned off by the large amount of unfamiliar paperwork required under the program. CalVTP's official workflow template, published on the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection's website, includes a dizzying decision tree of acronyms.
Fire prevention project managers who've tried to use the program have faced unforeseen hurdles. For example, the Central Coast Prescribed Burn Association wanted to use a single CalVTP application for a series of controlled burns across Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey counties. The 10 prescribed burn sites would help protect homes and ecologically sensitive habitats, including freshwater wetlands. The threat of fire isn't hypothetical in this area — just two years ago, the 48,000-acre River Fire burned within 15 miles of one project site.
But the projects straddle two Cal Fire units, according to Nadia Hamey, a forester and environmental consultant working with the burn association. She said each unit wanted a separate CalVTP application for the proposed burns in their area. Completing two versions of the new, unfamiliar paperwork proved too burdensome.
So the burn association decided to use the traditional environmental review process. That required 10 separate project applications. As of this winter, two burns had been completed, with the rest moving through the development and approval process.
Hamey said she would love to use CalVTP — "if it was a straightforward path for the projects we're trying to do."
A few projects breaking ground
In an email, Lien-Mager said the number of projects approved is not the best way to gauge CalVTP's success.
"The measure of CalVTP's success is the time it takes to get projects cleared and on the ground," she said. "The physical work of fuels treatment is an entirely separate exercise."
"Based on the early data available, CalVTP has significantly expedited projects," she added.
That claim is at odds with an initial review by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office.
"We didn't find clear data showing that it had significantly expedited projects," Helen Kerstein, an analyst with the LAO, told lawmakers during a wildfire oversight hearing late last year.
Although two years had passed since Newsom formally launched the program, Kerstein told lawmakers that "it's very early days" for CalVTP.
While the lawsuit isn't preventing any projects from moving forward right now, the board memo cautions that project managers should consider the "uncertainty" posed by the litigation before using CalVTP.
Some people using the new program say it is accomplishing what it set out to do. While no CalVTP project has been completed, a few are making progress on the ground.
JoAnna Lessard, manager of the Yuba Water Agency's Watershed Resilience and Forest Health Program, said CalVTP "allowed us to get out there in the field probably a year faster than we would have otherwise." The program has helped expedite a 5,400-acre project in Yuba County, she said. So far, about 3,000 acres of vegetation thinning and removal have been completed.
Wood chippers have started thinning ladder fuels between stands of looming trees in the Yuba River watershed in the Sierra foothills, north of Sacramento. Prescribed burning also is planned to help reintroduce low-intensity fire to the landscape. The project aims to protect an essential ecological feature of the foothills, as well as surrounding communities.
The Yuba Water Agency hired the same consulting firm that crafted the giant environmental review document for CalVTP. Lessard said that decision also helped the agency navigate the new approval process.
"We had the money, we had the people — we just needed the ability to get out there by completing environmental compliance," Lessard said. "And [CalVTP] really did streamline that."
Wolfy Rougle, forest health watershed coordinator for the Butte County Resource Conservation District, also is using CalVTP for a roughly 1,200-acre prescribed burn.
In an email, Rougle said that the program helped save the district $2,000 in fees. And she believes it could be useful for "smaller organizations [without] experience or confidence creating their own" projects.
But, in an email, she noted that "it's not *necessarily* faster" than the traditional project review process.
Still waiting for approval
Still, most project managers are using the old environmental review process. And even relatively simple, low-impact projects can get bogged down.
Back in the Mendocino County community of Brooktrails, workers have started clearing brush on a few miles of planned access and evacuation routes. But most roads remain overgrown and impassable.
After awarding the grant nearly two years ago, Cal Fire advised Sherwood Firewise Communities that the project's environmental impact was likely so minimal that it could apply for a "notice of exemption" — what is supposed to be the most efficient way of satisfying CEQA under the established system. The nonprofit would still have to clear a few hurdles, such as a plant survey and archaeological review — but that process, for only the first part of the project, took over a year.
They're now preparing the notice of exemption paperwork for the second leg of the project — after Cal Fire discouraged them from using CalVTP.
Rutledge, the project manager, said he understands that approvals for fire prevention projects can't be completed overnight. But he added that he'd like to see the state "step up and streamline their process" for environmental review, especially as it pumps more money into proposed projects.
"Our No. 1 goal," he said, "is to try to keep people from dying."
The California Newsroom is a collaboration of public radio stations, NPR and CalMatters.
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