California regulators said Tuesday that they have streamlined the state's permit process to make it faster to approve tree-thinning projects designed to slow massive wildfires that have devastated communities in recent years.
The state Board of Forestry and Fire Protection approved a vegetation management program based on more than a decade of analysis of the potential environmental damage from removing different types of fuel, ranging from alpine trees to chaparral.
That will allow new projects to use the preapproved environmental analyses rather than starting fresh each time to meet the requirements of the California's strict environmental laws.
Gov. Gavin Newsom equated it to the emergency orders he issued nearly a year ago to speed up approval of 35 forest management projects intended to help protect more than 200 communities in high-risk areas.
The orders suspended some requirements and regulations, which his office said reduced the usual three- to five-year timeline to less than a year while still protecting the environment.
The projects generally involve thinning or clearing trees or brush along wide paths near vulnerable communities, so that wildfires slow down and can be contained while they move through areas with less fuel. Other projects aim to restore a more natural balance between fire and forests.
Critics say the fuel-thinning projects wouldn't have slowed the wind-driven infernos that devastated communities in recent years and largely leveled the town of Paradise more than a year ago. Nor will they help with slower-moving forest fires unless the breaks in fuel are maintained for generations, they note, including by weeding out more flammable brush and grass that would naturally grow where trees are removed.
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State regulators say they expect the streamlined process to create efficiencies that will help California eventually meet its goal of treating 500,000 acres of non-federal land annually. The state is responsible for more than 20 million acres of wildland, but the new program will not be used in considering plans for commercial timber harvests or residential development.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized the state's Democratic leaders for not doing enough to manage forests to prevent wildfires.
Newsom's office pointedly noted that the federal government owns nearly 58% of California’s forestland, while the state owns 3% and 40% is privately owned. The federal government is attempting to match the state’s goal of treating 500,000 acres each year.
"The scale of the wildfire crisis in California is unprecedented, and we need a response to match the scale and severity of this challenge,” Newsom said in a statement.