California Fire and Forestry 2018 Legislative Update
By Greg Suba
New fires, new rules, ongoing vigilance
Forest health and wildfires were predominant issues in this year’s legislative cycle. In July, Gov. Jerry Brown convened a special legislative conference committee to report on and propose new legislation in response to the increased size and severity of California wildfires. After several public hearings and much lobbying, the Governor’s joint Conference Committee on Wildfire Preparedness and Response issued their findings and more than 100 pages of new legislation just hours before the close of the session.
Senate Bill 901 (SB 901)
SB 901 passed both houses two hours before the final bell, and established new rules – or more precisely new exemptions to existing rules – to facilitate forest thinning for private landowners wanting to protect life and property.
During those final days and hours, the CNPS team worked with a core group of forestry NGO allies to advise legislative staff on SB 901’s proposed exemptions to the California Forest Practice Rules. We worked to ensure adequate safeguards and legislative sunsets aimed to minimize potential damage from SB 901. The legislation divides new timber harvest exemptions into two landownership categories:
Small Timberland Owner Exemptions:
CalFIRE will grant exemption for private parcels of 60-acres or less within a single planning watershed along coastal forests and 100-acres or less within a single planning watershed inland. SB 901 allows property owners to use the exemptions only once per any given acre within a 10-year period. The legislation caps exemptions at three per landowner. Other resource agencies are able to review and comment on the exemption applications, though only within a compressed time frame. Additional specifications include:
- No clear-cutting.
- A Registered Professional Forester (RPF) must oversee the work.
- Conifers up to 32” stump diameter (measured 8” above ground) can be removed. (The previous limit for conifer removal was 26” stump diameter.)
- Conifers can be removed only after the six largest trees are retained on the same acre. This means there must be at least six other trees of equal or greater size on an acre before a landowner can remove a big tree in the name of fire safety.
- No oak trees greater than 26” stump diameter can be removed.
- The amount of trees and understory vegetation left after the project must adhere to existing state standards.
Forest Fire Protection Exemptions:
The second set of exemptions pertains to private landowners with up to 300 acres within moderate, high, or very high severity fire zones.
- Trees up to 30” stump diameter can be removed
- Property owners may construct temporary roads but must abandon and remove roads at the end of the project.
- Temporary road construction is limited to:
- Road construction applies to areas of 30 percent slope or less.
- They must maintain 200’ buffer from Class I and II, and 50’ buffer from Class III watercourses.
- Roads must be no more than 2 miles cumulatively per owner within a planning watershed in a 5-year period.
- Roads must be no more than 300 feet cumulatively per 40-acre projects (no connected segments).
- No more than 600 feet cumulatively per 80-acre or more projects (no connected segments).
- Property owners may remove trees up to 36” stump diameter standing in the way of road construction only if the RPF determines no other feasible road alignment is possible.
- Residual post-project forest structure (amount of trees and understory vegetation left) must adhere to existing state standards.
Property owners may not combine the exemptions with each other or with already existing exemptions.
Understanding the new exemptions
SB 901 seeks to address a suite of forest issues through its many provisions. As stated in the intent language of the bill:
“This act is intended to improve forest health and reduce the risk and intensity
of wildfires, thereby protecting the state from loss of life and property damage, reducing
greenhouse gas emissions, enhancing ecosystem function, improving wildlife habitats,
increasing water supply, improving water quality, reducing the amount of money the
state must spend on wildfire response and rebuilding, and increasing carbon
sequestration in our forests.”
The new exemptions come with four to six year sunsets. Reporting requirements, time and vigilance will tell us how effective California’s most recent actions will be in preparing and responding to our changing fire landscape.