Court Upholds Agency Discretion to Issue a Timber Plan in Accordance with Statutory Requirements

January 12th, 2015

By: Amy Higuera



In Center for Biological Diversity v. California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection, 2014 Cal. App. LEXIS 1181, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision to deny a petition for a writ of mandamus challenging the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s (Cal Fire) approval of a Nonindustrial Timber Management Plan in Mendocino County.

The Plan authorized the logging of approximately 615 privately-held acres of north coast redwood and Douglas fir forest. The case centered on a 17-acre “Late Succession Forest Stand” (LSFS), as defined by the Forest Practice Rules promulgated by the State Board of Forestry, within the Plan area that had potential to provide habitat for the marbled murrelet, an endangered species of seabird.

The court rejected petitioners’ contention that the Plan failed to adequately assess cumulative impacts of logging in the LSFS. The court stated petitioners improperly framed the issue as a failure to provide adequate information and analysis. Instead, the proper question was whether substantial evidence supported Cal Fire’s conclusions.

The court found that Cal Fire followed the methodology required by the Forest Practice Rules and the Plan addressed issues of murrelet presence, continuity of habitat, impacts of logging on late seral habitat functionality, maintenance of functional late seral nesting habitat, and feasibility of alternatives.  Cal Fire participated in at least two site inspections and considered analyses by a privately retained forester and its own experts, recommendations by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and public participation and comment. Accordingly, petitioners failed to satisfy their burden of showing there was not substantial evidence in the record. The same reasoning supported the court’s conclusion that petitioners failed to satisfy their burden in arguing the Plan violated the California Endangered Species Act by destroying murrelet habitat.

The court also held Cal Fire was not required to recirculate the Plan. Although a Cal Fire biologist recommended additional protective measures for murrelet habitat, this recommendation did not constitute significant new information. The court reasoned the recommendation was adequately incorporated into the mitigation measures and as a result, substantial evidence supported Cal Fire’s decision not to recirculate the Plan.

Finally, the court rejected petitioners’ separate claim against the Department of Fish and Wildlife, which alleged that the Department violated the public trust by failing to submit a nonconcurrence to the Plan. The court found that the Department’s decision was purely discretionary and, as a result, the court reasoned petitioners had no authority to compel the Department through mandamus to submit a nonconcurrence to the Plan.

KEY POINT

Despite petitioners’ characterization of nearly every factual determination as one to be determined as a matter of law, the court applied the substantial evidence standard of review and  reiterated the need for courts to defer to lead agencies in making determinations about environmental impacts of projects. Here, Cal Fire followed the methodology required by statute and, as a result, the court’s inquiry ended there.