California Governor Suspends Environmental Laws for Wildfire Prevention Projects

By Holly Kellum

California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) is suspending certain environmental laws in an effort to fast-track projects aimed at preventing wildfires. He called a state of emergency on March 22 that gave the green light to 35 projects that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) must implement “without delay.”

Newsom acknowledged that his executive order was controversial.

“I’m not naive. Some of these projects could literally, not figuratively, take two years to get done. Or we could get them done in the next two months,” he said at a March 22 news conference.

“We’ll be thoughtful about these prescribed burns, we’ll be thoughtful about these fuel breaks, we’ll be thoughtful about the impacts we will have on the environment but we are going to do so in a way that does not inure again to a two-year SEQR (state environmental quality review) process.”

The 35 projects target over 200 communities, according to a report by Cal Fire, and include things like removing dead trees, clearing vegetation, and creating fire breaks.

More than 25 million acres of California wildlands are classified as under very high or extreme fire threat, threatening over half the state.

“Fueled by drought, an unprecedented buildup of dry vegetation and extreme winds, the size and intensity of these wildfires [in 2017 and 2018] caused the loss of more than 100 lives, destroyed thousands of homes and exposed millions of urban and rural Californians to unhealthy air,” the report says. “California must adopt an ‘all of the above’ approach to protecting public safety and maintaining the health of our forest ecosystems.”

It cited a backlog in forest maintenance as one of the largest problems threatening as many as 15 million acres, adding that “funding limitations constrain what can be achieved.”

Newsom has been openly critical of President Donald Trump on issues ranging from health care, offshore drilling, and border security, but one thing they seem to agree on is the need to remove brush and logs that act as tinder for forest fires.

The Cal Fire report also cited active management of forests as being essential for controlling fires, which the former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said was a key prevention strategy.

But Newsom and the President differ in how far they will go in working with the private sector to remove unwanted trees.

President Trump signed an executive order last December that called for offering for sale at least 3.8 billion board feet of timber from USDA Forest Service lands.

But the Cal Fire report only suggests increasing commercial logging on private land, and said that better management of state lands would be possible with updates to the state’s Forest Practice Act.

The report also recommended modifying regulations to “incentivize private landowners to engage in fuels reduction projects.”

Trump has framed the issue as an economic one, not just because of the devastating impact that fires have on the economy and the costs to fight them, but because of a trade dispute with Canada over their subsidised lumber.

In 2017, the administration leveled tariffs on Canadian lumber, saying that Canada was unfairly subsidizing its lumber, thus undercutting American lumber businesses.

While Canada has denied those claims, Trump has used the trade dispute to make the case that the United States could produce more of its own lumber if private companies had access to public land.

“It’s so ridiculous. Here we have it. We’re not even talking about cutting down trees, which in certain areas we can do. We’re talking about lying on the floor, creating a tremendous hazard and a tremendous fire hazard and death trap,” Trump said at a cabinet meeting last August.