In a partially published opinion Claremont Canyon Conservancy v. Regents of the University of California (2023) 92.Cal.App.5th 474, the First District Court of Appeal held that an EIR for wildfire-driven vegetation removal projects did not need to include a tree inventory or identify the number of or specific trees to be removed to comply with CEQA because the EIR contained sufficient information to analyze environmental impacts and preparing a tree inventory was not reasonably feasible.
The Regents of the University of California, Berkeley worked with a wildland fire manager and fire ecologist to prepare a Wildland Vegetative Fuel Management Plan for an 800-acre fire-prone parcel of land on UC Berkeley’s campus, known as Hill Campus. Hill Campus is heavily forested and located in a “Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone,” and “has been plagued by wildfires;” beginning in 1905 and most recently in 2017 when the Grizzly Fire burned approximately 24 acres. The Plan proposed several vegetation removal projects, including one fire fuel break project and three fire hazard reduction projects, with the goal of reducing the wildfire risk on Hill Campus. In developing the Plan and selecting the project locations, the Regents relied on fuel models to predict fire behavior, which considered the different vegetation types across Hill Campus. The Plan proposed removing dead, unhealthy or structurally unsound trees; trees that would torch or burn with high fire intensity; and certain understory shrubs.
The Regents prepared an EIR for the Plan, containing both programmatic and project-level review, and certified the Final EIR in early 2021. The EIR identifies objective criteria for tree removal and proposes the principle of “variable density thinning,” which considers site-specific conditions to create gaps in canopy cover to reduce canopy fire spread. The number of and specific trees to be removed would be determined by a certified arborist and registered professional forester by applying these criteria and this principle.
Two organizations, the Claremont Canyon Conservancy and the Hills Conservation Network, filed petitions for writ of mandate challenging the adequacy of the EIR’s description of the vegetation removal projects. After consolidating the cases, the trial court ruled in favor of the petitioners, concluding that the EIR’s project descriptions were “not accurate, stable and finite” and only provided “conceptual criteria,” rendering the project descriptions “vague and ambiguous.” The Regents appealed.
The Court of Appeal’s Decision
On appeal, Hills and Claremont argued that CEQA required the EIR to identify the specific trees that would remain in the fuel break area and that the EIR’s failure to specify the number of trees that would be removed made it was impossible to evaluate the projects’ environmental impacts; thereby rendering the EIR project description “unclear and unstable” and preventing meaningful comparisons between the plan and the project alternatives. The court disagreed.
The court pointed out that CEQA Guidelines section 15124 requires a project description to include specific information—“the precise location and boundaries of the proposed project on a detailed map; a general description of the proposed project’s objectives, including the project’s underlying purpose; a general description of the project’s technical, economic, and environmental characteristics; and a brief description of the EIR’s intended uses.” The court found that the EIR contained all of the required information. The CEQA Guidelines, the court noted, do not require a project description to “supply extensive detail beyond that needed for evaluation and review of the environmental impact[.]”
The court then noted that, here, where “a project is subject to variable future conditions,” such as “unusual rainy weather, tree growth, impact of pests and diseases, [and] changing natural resources,” a project description must “be sufficiently flexible” to account for those conditions. Hills argued that conditions within the project area would not substantively change in any “unforeseen way.” But, the court found this argument unavailing given the substantial evidence in the record demonstrating otherwise. The court then concluded that as long as an EIR contains sufficient information to enable decision-makers and the public to understand the projects’ environmental consequences it satisfies CEQA’s requirements. Accordingly, the court determined that the EIR “need not specify, on a highly detailed level, the number of trees [to be] removed.” The absence of this information did not violate CEQA because the project’s’ basic characteristics were “accurate, stable and finite,” contrary to the trial court’s determination.
The Regents further contended that it was not reasonably feasible to prepare a tree inventory and so the EIR could not violate CEQA for omitting one. The court agreed, finding sufficient evidence in the record to support this conclusion (steep and rugged terrain of Hill Campus created impediments, high cost associated with an inventory). Because the project area was subject to variable environmental conditions, on-the-ground realities could significantly change between the EIR’s preparation and project implementation, making it impractical to identify specific trees to remove.
Lastly, the court emphasized that “technical perfection, scientific certainty, and exhaustive analysis” are not required of an EIR; rather, it looks at whether the EIR is adequate, complete, and represents a good-faith effort at full disclosure. The court concluded that the EIR “provides sufficient information to understand the projects’ environmental impacts” and “sufficient detail to enable the public to understand the environmental impacts associated with the Regents’ plan to remove vegetation in specific locations on the Hill Campus to reduce wildfire risk.”
The remainder of the opinion disposing of other CEQA claims challenging the EIR’s methodology for wind speed modeling and its analysis of and visual impacts is unpublished.
– Alina Werth