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CEQA Compliance on Fuels Treatment Projects Carried Out by Non-profits

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires “public agencies” (state or local government agencies) to consider, disclose and mitigate the environmental effects of projects that they carryout, fund or permit.  Non-profit organizations do not have any responsibility for CEQA compliance for activities they undertake; however, when the non-profit’s activity receives funds, permits or assistance from a public agency then that public agency becomes subject to CEQA. The public agency may require the non-profit to conduct surveys, collect information and provide documentation to meet the public agency’s CEQA responsibilities.

Some non-profit’s activities may also require a federal agency to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  Compliance with NEPA does not replace CEQA compliance where there is public agency involvement.  However, the studies or documentation used in support of the NEPA document may be used to support the CEQA document.

In the event that a non-profit’s activity triggers neither NEPA or CEQA the non-profit is still required to comply with all other federal and state environmental laws, such as: the Endangered Species Acts; Clean Water Acts; Neo-Tropical Migratory Bird Treaty Act; Clean Air Acts; and others.

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Basic CEQA Steps for Non-profits

Step #1 - Determine who is the lead agency

The Lead Agency is the public agency with primary responsibility for carrying out, funding or approving the project. CAL FIRE will be lead agency if it funds or assists in carrying out a fuels treatment project on non-federal land.

A responsible agency makes secondary project approvals or permits and relies upon environmental analysis of the lead agency.  CAL FIRE will be a responsible agency if it funds or assists in carrying out a fuels treatment project on non-federal land where another public agency (local government or other state agency) has already assumed the lead agency role.

CAL FIRE has the duty of making the decision on its lead or responsible agency status.

Where CAL FIRE is the lead agency, it is responsible for primary CEQA compliance. CAL FIRE must determine the level of environmental documentation required, file appropriate CEQA documents at the State Clearinghouse, consult with responsible and trustee agencies, identify and mitigate project impacts, provide required public disclosure and make appropriate findings. CAL FIRE may require the non-profit organization to conduct environmental studies and prepare draft environmental documents on CAL FIRE’s behalf.  CAL FIRE’s staff will provide direction, advice and assistance, as well as appropriate forms, to non-profit organizations for the completion of environmental documents that satisfy CAL FIRE’s CEQA responsibilities.

Where CAL FIRE is a responsible agency it will rely on the CEQA documentation prepared by the lead agency.  CAL FIRE will consider whether the analysis contained in the lead agency’s approved CEQA document adequately covers the potential impacts arising from those aspects of the project CAL FIRE has direct responsibility for implementing.

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Step #2 - Determine whether the project is Categorically Exempt or if a Negative Declaration will need to be prepared

As lead agency CAL FIRE will determine what CEQA document is necessary, depending on the results of surveys/studies, project magnitude/timing/location, unique or unusual circumstances, input from other agencies/professionals, applicable exemption classes, type and ability.  This will require a detailed description of the project, its location, the environmental setting and operational details such that potential impacts to resources can be ascertained.  CAL FIRE will consult with other agencies, ensure project impacts are identified and mitigated, approve and file all documents. CAL FIRE may require the non-profit’s assistance in completing these tasks.

Categorical Exemption (documented in a Notice of Exemption) A Categorical Exemption requires limited analysis and restrictions to ensure that environmental impacts will not occur. The following classes of activities are generally considered to be exempt from the requirement to conduct further environmental analysis. However, where the potential exists for impacts due to location, scenic highways, hazardous materials sites, unusual circumstances, or cumulative effects the exemptions do not apply. An abbreviated checklist is used to document the steps taken to ensure that impacts will not occur.

Examples of fuels treatment projects found to be Categorically Exempt in the past:

  • Existing Facilities – maintenance or re-establishment of existing fuel breaks;
  • New Construction – new fuel breaks;
  • Minor Alterations to Land – minor vegetation removal, shaded fuel breaks;
  • Information Collection - environmental studies prior to project implementation;
  • Inspections – for project compliance;
  • Actions to Protect Resources/Environment – chipper programs.

Negative Declaration– A negative declaration (Neg Dec) (or mitigated negative declaration) is needed when a project does not “fit” any of the exemption classes or its implementation will require added measures to mitigate impacts related to one or more resources   A negative declaration requires the completion of an Initial Study/CEQA checklist, supported by: an archaeology records check and or sign-off by a CAL FIRE archaeologist; a California Natural Diversity Database (CNDDB) check with possible survey of and avoidance of identified sensitive habitats; informal and formal consultation with federal and state agencies as needed; consideration of impacts to air and water quality, aesthetics, noise; and other survey and analysis as necessary. All potential impacts must fall to the level of less than significant after mitigation.

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Step #3 - Submit project’s Notice of Exemption or Negative Declaration to CAL FIRE for review, public noticing, and approval.

As lead agency CAL FIRE, in accepting an environmental document prepared by another party, must determine that it reflects its own independent judgement.  Therefore, the draft CEQA document will receive careful review and editing before being released for public comment.

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Step #4 - Wait until the filing of the Notice of Exemption or the Notice of Determination.

For projects that are exempt, CAL FIRE must file a Notice of Exemption with the State Clearinghouse.  For negative declarations or mitigated negative declarations CAL FIRE must file the draft document with the State Clearinghouse for a 30 day public comment period, consider all comments received, adopt a final document and file a Notice of Determination with the State Clearinghouse.  On-the-ground project work may not commence until all CEQA steps have been completed.

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Step #5 - Carry out the project as per the project description and CEQA document specifications.

The implementation of all approved projects must be carried out in accordance with the description of the project as described in the CEQA document and all potential project impacts must be either avoided or mitigated through the measures described in the CEQA document.  All changes in the project or the mitigation must be reviewed by CAL FIRE for compliance with CEQA.

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