Scaling Mt. VTP Again

Prescribed burn at Miramar

By Frank Landis, Chair Conservation Committee 

This month I wanted to go over my experience of the Board of Forestry's (BoF) Vegetation Treatment Program (VTP) Programmatic Environmental Impact Report (PEIR). It's the fourth time this PEIR has been sent out since 2013, the third time I've written and submitted a letter for CNPSSD.

Working on this document is always an exercise in repression, because it is impossible to read through it without becoming furious at something. For the third go-round in 2016, about half of us commenting on that version found from commiserating that we could only work on it for a few hours a day, due to either heartburn or stomachaches from holding it in.

But why? That's what I wanted to go through here. Some basic facts are not in dispute, but the fury-inducing question of Why! is something those of us who work on it continue to speculate on.

What's not in dispute: the main body of the VTP is 751 pages long. With appendices it is just over 1,200 pages long. This too-short document is supposed to cover a project over 23,000,000 acres of BoF's 31,000,000-acre State Responsibility Area (SRA) where they have jurisdiction to respond to fires (For comparison, the state of California is about 104,765,440 acres). Since the 1980s, BoF has had a Vegetation Management Program (VMP) that allowed them to do most of the things that they want to do in VTP. The goal of the VMP was to treat 120,000 acres of land each year, but it has not met that goal for many years, treating as few as 5,000 acres in 2013/2014. "Treat," in this case, means some combination of prescribed fires, herbicides, mechanical and hand removal of vegetation, and grazing. All of this supposedly should make fires less dangerous and also convert chaparral-covered hills to grasslands to "improve forage," which seems to mean making ranches grassier to support herbivores (Deer? Cattle?). BoF blames the shortcomings of the VMP on the full CEQA process that each VMP project goes through. In the case of prescribed burns, the VMP permit is only good for three years, and sometimes that is not long enough to get the right conditions. The VTP solution is to increase the amount of land that could be treated from 10 million to 23 million acres and to short- circuit the CEQA review process, so that projects get approved faster that way, they'll be able to treat 60,000 acres per year. What "treat" also means is that a big part of what BoF does is to take money from government funding sources and pay for treatments on private land. These treatments average 260 acres each, and people apply for funds from the program.

One big problem with this version of the VTP was the maps. Although the text says that the VTP only covers state lands, the maps propose fuel breaks on everywhere from MCAS Miramar to Cabrillo National Monument, even the floor of Death Valley(!). It isn't just federal lands—most of the local Indian Reservations had VTP activities mapped on them. So did the Safari Park, for that matter. The mappers didn't bother to make sure that the VTP only treated state lands, and the contradiction between text and maps led us which, if either, was correct. There's a legal issue there, because activities on federal lands are regulated under NEPA, not CEQA, and require an EIS, not an EIR. Incidentally, would you trust these people to plan a prescribed burn? During a drought?

Sadly, it gets worse from there. A link to a purported CEQA-style checklist in the appendices (one that was present in version 3) now links to a checklist for planning prescribed burns, not avoiding sensitive plants. Then there's climate change. The VTP purportedly would have no significant greenhouse gas emissions. Their logic was that they would treat 60,000 acres per year. Since those acres would burn each year anyway, and the VTP only burns half of its acres (the other half would be masticated, herbicided, cleared and/or grazed), the VTP has less greenhouse gas emissions than the fires it replaces, 260 acres at a time. This sounds great, until you ask whether anybody can so accurately predict where the fires will burn each year that they can preemptively clear the area. If they could, why didn't they do that for the Tubbs and Thomas Fires this year? Actually, there's research suggesting that there's something far less than a 1% chance of a fire hitting a fire break that was cleared the same year, so basically the VTP's 60,000-acre treatment is in addition to the fires that burn each year, rather than in place of them, with rare exceptions that we can only hope will matter.

That's the level of analysis throughout the document, and part of my frustration is reading this over and over and over again, Groundhog Day-style. What has happened in the past is that the BoF takes all our comments, does a trivial rewrite, discards our old comments and issues the VTP all over again, perhaps hoping that this time we won't respond. This year we submitted all our old comment letters along with the new ones, so if they repeat this maneuver on the fifth edition, they just get a bigger record to respond to.

From here speculations enter tinfoil hat territory, diving into the mess of the VTP and trying to figure out what it really does and why. As with so much in politics in the last year, this devolves into speculation. Rather than tell one story, here I will tell two, both consistent with the evidence.

The kind guess for VTP motivations is that the people pushing it believe it will be good for the state. Their view happens to be contrary to what the fire ecology research now says, but it's easy to believe a story that getting rid of fuel will make for fewer fires. The reason it doesn't is that you have to ask what happens next. If you replace chaparral with grass, you reduce fuel but increase ignitability. If you rush the review process and light more prescribed fires during the depths of a severe drought (as in 2013/2014), you get more out-of-control conflagrations.

Still, this guess portrays the VTP authors as good people in over their heads. Their problem is that they're working on a PEIR. Programmatic EIRs are supposed analyze predictable, repetitive impacts for programs (such as large developments or the MSCP) so that project EIRs can "tier off" the PEIR, referring to the analysis in the PEIR rather than repeating it themselves. The problem with a statewide PEIR is that it would take tens of thousands (if not millions) of pages to do all the analyses necessary for the VTP. The published PEIR tries to push all that analysis down to the individual projects, and that's incorrect. Hence the current mess.

That's one interpretation. The less kind interpretation assumes that the PEIR is a scam. Perhaps the individual projects tiering off the VTP PEIR won't have any analysis. Instead, they'll claim that the analysis was done in that 1200-page PEIR. It wasn't of course, but if the project is declared to have no significant impacts (a main theme of the VTP), it doesn't need to go out for public comment, so it can just go into effect with a signature or two. One could even go so far as to see this as a Trumpian way to use CEQA (via the PEIR) to create a system that ignores CEQA, avoids oversight from those pesky urban democrats, bypasses all those anti-business California environmental laws, all the while transferring huge amounts of taxpayer money to private contractors.

This falls into the narrative of the "Fire-Industrial Complex," the idea that we fight fires in part because it makes contractors rich, rather than treating big fires as natural disasters and saving lives. We do spend billions each year fighting fires, and a lot of the money goes to equipment rental, contractors, and firefighter services. Is the whole complex really that out of control? Hard to tell from here.

These speculations only matter if the VTP gets approved, survives the inevitable lawsuit, and we see it in action. That's not likely to happen, not this time. This year more CNPS chapters than ever before submitted their own comments. In addition to our own letter, CNPSSD donated $1,500 from our legal fund to help Endangered Habitats League hire a lawyer and fire ecologists to provide expert comment. Given the depth and breadth of the negative responses, I don't think the VTP will go into effect, so long as we can muster a response. Since I'm a pessimist though, I do wonder when the next edition will come out...