New law makes more funding available for forest management, loosens logging rules for some
Bureau of Land Management lands outside West Point after completed thinning project
On the last day of the legislative session, August 31, California lawmakers passed Senate Bill 901 (Dodd, D-Napa), which addresses utility liability for wildland fire and wildland fire prevention. While Governor Brown has not yet signed the bill, he’s expected to do so.
The bill does the following, which may be of special interest to landowners and local residents:
- Creates a Wildfire Resilience Program to assist nonindustrial timber owners with wildfire resilience and assistance on permitting at CalFire. The program may involve the University of California Cooperative Extension, resource conservation districts, and others.†
- Continuously appropriates $200 million a year for three years to CalFire for forest health, fire prevention, greenhouse gas reduction, year-round fire crews, fuel reduction and a climate change adaptation program.
- Expands the state Board of Forestry and Fire Protection’s fire safety standards regulations to lands classified as very high fire hazard severity zones.†
- Requires that board to periodically update regulations for fuel breaks and greenbelts near communities to provide greater fire safety in both state responsibility areas on very-high hazard severity zones, including a requirement to preserve undeveloped ridgelines.
- Requires the forestry board to develop criteria and maintain a “Fire Risk Adapted Community” list of local agencies that meet best practices for local fire planning. The Board shall consider the communities’ participation in†Firewise USA or the “Fire Adapted Communities” programs, the adoption of the Board’s recommended safety element improvements, and any recently update community wildfire protection plans.
- Exempts the sale of logs from certain fuel breaks from state regulations.
- Creates new exemptions to state logging rules to provide incentives for small timberland owners to thin forests and remove surface and ladder fuels while protecting oaks and the largest conifers on a site. Creates new exemptions to state logging rules to make it easier to build temporary roads in areas that will be thinned to reduce their fire risk. These new exemptions will end in five years so that state officials can evaluate whether they’re working or not.
- Establishes that state-funded fuel reduction projects on national forest and BLM lands that have undergone environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act are not required to be analyzed under the California Environmental Quality Act.
The utility provisions of the bill have been variously described as a “give away” to investor-owned utilities like PG&E and a sensible approach to ensure continued utility investment in California energy projects and infrastructure. The bill establishes a “reasonable standard” for determining power utility fire damages and allows utilities to issue bonds to help cover the costs of wildfire by passing on some of the cost to their customers.
While we have reservations about certain aspects of the bill, overall, Foothill Conservancy is pleased that the Legislature is finally getting serious about providing funds to make our forests more resilient and our communities safer from the threat of wildland fire.