In Claremont Canyon Conservancy v. Regents of the University of California (2023) __Cal.App.5th__, two organizations, the Claremont Canyon Conservancy and the Hills Conservation Network, filed petitions for writ of mandate challenging the adequacy of an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) under CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act) for a plan to conduct a Wildland Vegetative Fuel Management Plan to decrease wildfire risk at the University of California, Berkeley’s Hill Campus. Consolidated in the trial court, the petitions asserted that the EIR’s project description and discussion of environmental impacts were inadequate, arguing that the EIR lacked important details about the precise number of trees to be removed under the Plan. The trial court agreed, and halted the Plan. In a dramatic turn, the Court of Appeal reversed, finding that “the EIR include[d] 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 wildlife risk.” The case helps settle the level of detail required in an EIR’s project description, particularly where some details may be subject to refinement when implementing the project.
Factual and Procedural History
The Hill Campus covers approximately 800 acres in the East Bay Hills, much of which is heavily forested and located in a “Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone.” The campus has been hit by many wildfires over the years, the first of which was in 1905. The University started fire management planning after the 1923 Berkeley fire, leading to periodic vegetation removal and maintenance. In 2019, the University received a Cal Fire grant for on-campus hazardous fire fuel reduction projects, two years after the Grizzly fire burned almost two dozen acres of the campus.
With the help of this grant funding, the Regents retained an expert wildland fire manager/fire ecologist to develop and prepare the Plan, which was reviewed by the University’s Fire Mitigation Committee and proposes vegetation removal projects on 121 acres largely covered in conifer and eucalyptus trees. It also proposes several vegetation treatment projects, including one fuel break project and three fire hazard reduction projects. The Regents began the EIR preparation process in late 2019, in which plaintiffs submitted extensive comments and provided alternative proposals. The final EIR, which included the Plan as an attachment, incorporated the comments and was certified in early 2021.
Plaintiffs filed petitions for writ of mandate challenging four descriptions of the project in the EIR, along with its discussion of certain environmental impacts. The Conservancy argued the projects did not go far enough, and should have planned to remove more tress. Contrastingly, the Hills argued the projects went too far. The trial court consolidated the petitions and held the project descriptions were “uncertain and ambiguous” because the EIR failed to provide concrete information as to how the listed criteria would be implemented and did not identify the precise number and trees slated for removal. It then issued a peremptory writ of mandate directing the Regents, in part, to vacate their EIR certification as to those projects. The Regents appealed and argued the EIR’s description of the vegetation removal plan complied with CEQA and contained sufficient information to analyze the project’s environmental impacts.
As described in the Court’s opinion, under CEQA Guidelines section 15124 (a)-(d), an EIR must include a description of the project containing: (1) the precise location and boundaries of the proposed project shown on a detailed map; (2)a statement of the objectives sought by the proposed project, which should include the underlying purpose of the project and may discuss the project benefits; (3) a general description of the project’s technical, economic, and environmental characteristics; and (4) a statement briefly describing the intended uses of the EIR. A project description must be accurate, stable, and finite, but need not include extensive detail past what is needed for an evaluation and review of the environmental impacts at issue. Much of what is included in an EIR is left to the agency preparing it, which includes some degree of forecasting. The level of specificity depends on the level of specificity in the underlying activity described in the EIR.
The University used fuel models to predict fire behavior on the Hill Campus to help develop the Plan and select locations for four discrete fuels management projects. The Plan proposes creating fuel breaks to reduce the spread of fire between canyons on the Hill Campus. The EIR provides examples of shaded and nonshaded fuel breaks and identifies objective standards for vegetation removal. The EIR identifies objective criteria for tree removal in the fire hazard reduction areas, including the consideration of tree health, structure, height, potential for failure, and flammability/fire hazard. It also lists criteria for what vegetation should be removed in the fire hazard reduction project areas, and describes the vegetation removal mechanisms in those areas. Additionally, the EIR sets out the proposed implementation of “variable density thinning” in fire hazard reduction project areas, which considers site-specific conditions and the conditions of adjacent vegetation. Under this principle, only certain vegetation, like eucalyptus, would be targeted for removal in the fire hazard reduction project areas.
The Conservancy argued the Regents erred in failing to specify the number of trees to be removed in the fire hazard reduction project areas, and the Hills found a project description to be unstable because it indicates “some trees would remain” in the fuel break, but did not assign a meaning to “some trees.” The Court was unpersuaded by these arguments, finding the EIR’s description of each fuel brake and fire hazard reduction project was sufficient. Building on earlier Court of Appeal cases such as Buena Vista Water Storage District v. Kern Water Bank Authority, the Court explained that the EIR does not need to identify a set tree density or exact number of trees to be removed, as this was not feasible or necessary to the evaluation of environmental impacts. A “canopy of variable density” will be created by the removal of trees that are unhealthy, structurally unsound, and prone to torching. Additionally, specifying the exact number of trees to be removed is infeasible because it would require constant evaluation and consideration in the field, in part because some trees will grow, like the eucalyptus, which can reproduce at a rapid rate, and others will die during implementation of the several individual projects. Also, the topography of the Hill Campus, along with changing weather conditions, require a flexible approach.
Further, the Court made multiple statements to support that the EIR provides sufficient information to understand the project’s environmental effects. It pointed to the EIR’s identification of the precise locations and boundaries of the projects on a detailed map, description of the underlying purpose of the projects and the reasoning as to why vegetation is required in the project areas, and inclusion of a description of the vegetation in each project area, lists of objective vegetation removal criteria, and summaries of the methods used to remove vegetation along with the purpose of the projects and the EIR’s intended use. Such information was more than sufficient to evaluate the Project’s impacts.
While an EIR’s project description must meet the essential requirements set forth in CEQA Guidelines section 15124 (a)-(d), the Court reaffirmed the long-held principle that “‘technical perfection,’ ‘scientific certainty,’ and ‘exhaustive analysis’ are not required.” As the Court emphasized, “[s]o long as the EIR provides sufficient information to analyze environmental impacts . . . a project description for large-scale vegetation removal that is subject to changing future conditions need not specify, on a highly detailed level, the number of trees removed.” In this case, the EIR’s description of the project and its basic characteristics were accurate, stable, and finite notwithstanding the lack of precise quantification where the EIR contained the criteria to be used in determining which vegetation should be removed in various project areas.