SF Forest Alliance: Problems in the Sutro Forest DEIR – Part II

On September 22, 2017,  the Aqua Terra Aeris Law Group, on behalf of its client, San Francisco Forest Alliance, submitted the following comments and questions to the University of California, San Francisco (“UCSF”) regarding the Draft Environmental Impact Report (“DEIR”) for the UCSF Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve Vegetation Management Plan (“Plan”).

[We are publishing it in two parts, owing to its length. This is Part II.
For Part I, Click HERE: SF Forest Alliance: Problems in the Sutro Forest DEIR – Part I
The pictures in these articles are illustrative only, and were not submitted to UCSF. Most legal references and citations in the original have been removed for easier reading.]

D. The DEIR Fails to Adequately Assess or Mitigate Erosion Impacts.

The DEIR fails to include meaningful analysis or mitigation measures for erosion controls. Again, to some extent, this deficiency flows from the fact that neither existing conditions nor the exact scope of the project is defined. Nevertheless, numerous members of the public have submitted comments based on scientific review and personal experience highlighting that widespread tree removal in the forest will expose soils and degrade soil integrity in an area with steep slopes and high moisture accumulation. Many of these effects may not be immediately evident—for example, only years after a tree is removed may the root structure left behind totally rot—yet the DEIR describes and attempts to mitigate only impacts short-term impact such as access road construction and landing area. (DEIR 2-22 to 2-24.) Thus, the DEIR fails to completely analyze the project’s significant adverse impacts, and fails to support its conclusions with substantial evidence.

Blue tarp following a landslide in Forest Knolls San Francisco

E. The DEIR Fails to Adequately Assess Greenhouse Gas Emissions.

The DEIR fails to disclose fundamental information for an accurate greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions analysis. The DEIR acknowledges that tree removal will cause GHG emissions, but fails to meaningfully analyze the numbers and types of trees to be removed and replaced. For example, the summary on page 3-27 does not sum up how many trees will actually be removed. Table 3.5-2, column 6 provides the net reduction or increase in trees, but this does not indicate how many living trees will be removed. That is because the numbers presented are net removals, i.e., living trees removed, plus dead trees removed, minus new trees planted.

The DEIR’s treatment of old trees as equivalent to new saplings is also incorrect. Based on best current scientific information, large, old trees do not act simply as aging carbon reservoirs but rather continuously fix large amounts of carbon compared to smaller trees. (N.L. Stephenson et al., Rate of Tree Carbon Accumulation Increases Continuously with Tree Size (2014) 507 Nature 90.) This study determined that the oldest trees gained the most mass each year and subsequently, accumulating more carbon, capitalizing on their additional leaves. (Id. at 91-92.) The DEIR fails to account for this information when it claims that “[y]oung, healthy forests absorb carbon more rapidly than older, dense forests (Wayburn 2010).” (DEIR at 4.6-18.)

It is also false to assume that carbon sequestration in a forest ceases at a certain point. The DEIR presumes “the Reserve’s mature eucalyptus are well past peak growth, and are no longer sequestering much if any additional carbon.” (DEIR at 4.6-19.) Per the Stephenson paper, supra, and Peter Ehrlich’s updated forest assessment of eucalyptus trees in San Francisco post-drought described below, this is incorrect, insufficient, and inadequate. Additionally, these assumptions result in an inadequate baseline. Given the end of the drought, a significant number of trees deeming “dying” by the DEIR have likely recovered their canopies and are sequestering more carbon than in April 2016. Conversely and without evidence, the DEIR assumes 100% survival rates for new saplings planted, incorrectly ignoring the mortality rate for these new trees, especially given the lack of irrigation. When removing mature trees, the U.S. Forest Service recommends a 3:1 replanting ratio to account for the loss of carbon sequestration and expected sapling death.

The DEIR also lacks calculations regarding the projected biomass and CO2 of the replacement trees in future years. To fully understand the impacts of the Plan, information about carbon sequestration at incremental years, such as 2020, 2030 and 2050, would more fully disclose the Plan’s impacts. Executive Order S-3-05 and Executive Order B-30-15, have targets that need to be reached by 2020, 2030 and 2050, but without presenting GHG impacts at these critical years, the public cannot know whether the Plan will conflict with applicable plans, policies, or regulations as required by CEQA. (Guidelines, § 15064.4, subd. (b)(3) [“A lead agency should consider . . . [t]he extent to which the project complies with regulations or requirements adopted to implement a statewide, regional, or local plan for the reduction or mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.”].)

The DEIR is lacking information on other critical GHG measurements. The DEIR does not provide estimates for changes in soil carbon, though the changes to the surface throughout the Reserve will disturb the soil. (DEIR at 4.6-15.) This is especially true because the plan for understory removal is to dig out the understory plants by the roots. Additionally, the DEIR fails to provide estimates have for carbon contained in the woody shrubs and understory that will be extensively removed and destroyed. (Id.)

Finally, the DEIR fails to account for the Plan’s cumulative impacts on climate change, stating that “a single project is very unlikely to measurably contribute to a noticeable incremental change in the global average temperature, or to the global, local, or microclimate.” (DEIR at 4.7-16.) When making this determination, however, an EIR may not conclude that a cumulative impact is insignificant solely because the project’s contribution to an unacceptable existing environmental condition is relatively small.  “[T]he impact of greenhouse gas emissions on climate change is precisely the kind of cumulative impacts analysis” that agencies must conduct. (Center for Biological Diversity v. Nat’l Highway Traffic Safety Admin (2008) .) One project may not appear to have a significant effect on climate change, but the combined impacts of many sources can damage California’s climate as a whole.

Therefore, CEQA requires that an agency consider both direct and indirect impacts of a project and fully disclose those impacts to adequately inform the public and decisionmakers. (Guidelines, § 15064.) The DEIR, because “[c]arbon sequestration in the forest would exceed GHG emissions generated from equipment and loss of carbon stock/uptake from tree removal,” concludes the Plan’s impacts will be less than cumulatively considerable. (DEIR at 4.7-17.) This failure to consider the Plan’s impacts in conjunction with other plans and projects flouts CEQA’s mandate.

Ultimately, the DEIR’s Greenhouse Gas analysis is deficient. UCSF’s conclusion that the Plan will not have a significant impact on the environment is unsupported without a full disclosure and analysis of the Plan’s greenhouse gas impacts. CEQA “requires full environmental disclosure.” (Communities for a Better Environment, supra, 184 Cal.App.4th at 88; see also Guidelines, § 15121, subd. (a).) Although “technical perfection” is not required, an EIR must be “adequa[te], complete[], and a good-faith effort at full disclosure.” Because the DEIR fails to include and consider recent scientific information, fully describe the Plan, analyze compliance with relevant regulations and policies, account for significant sources of carbon, and analyze cumulative impacts, it fails as an informational document and does not present an accurate picture of the Plan’s impacts to the public or decisionmakers. UCSF must correct these areas and recirculate the EIR.

F. The DEIR Fails to Adequately Assess and Mitigate Wind and Local Climate Effects.
Commenters have pointed out that Sutro Forest was originally created in part to help calm winds from the Pacific Ocean into the City. The effect has considerable influence on the microclimate of the immediate vicinity, as well as nearby areas, such as Noe Valley, Dolores Heights, Castro, Bernal Heights, or the Mission, allowing more fog and wind to pass through the forest into nearby areas. Commenters have noted that Sutro Forest has the highest moisture content of any location in the City, and massive vegetation removal may logically have the effect of changing this moisture collecting condition and changing weather patterns in the City. San Francisco is well-known for its micro-climates, and this project effect cannot be simply ignored. Without collection and evaluation of micro-climate data in the City, the DEIR fails to assess this project effect.  A revised and recirculated DEIR should include detailed observation about the microclimate and forest conditions.

G. The DEIR Fails to Adequately Assess and Mitigate Impacts to Biological Resources.

First, the DEIR fails to provide a meaningful assessment of impacts to avian species and their habitat. Principally, the removal of thousands of standing dying trees deprives protected bird species of next, perch, and boring spaces. (See: Eucalyptus tree hosts a flicker family)

A loss of understory also impairs habitat and foraging opportunity. (See: Mount Sutro Forest Ecosystem and Wildlife Habitat)  These project effects must be analyzed.

Second, the DEIR fails to adequately mitigate impacts to Monarch Butterflies. BIO-PH-1 is inadequate because it enables UCSF still to cut down the trees on which the monarchs were found after the butterflies have left. This is destroying essential monarch butterfly habitat and the exact trees that the butterflies are likely to try to return to the following year. Aggregation on trees themselves are hard to spot. Monarch butterflies are often seen flying around San Francisco’s eucalyptus forests, but where are their home trees? How will the biologist determine whether the aggregation has dispersed or not, and what is the time frame? This is unclear in the DEIR. A 200-foot buffer is inadequate for species protection given the significant disturbance that the Plan’s deforestation will create around the aggregation trees including heavy equipment, the construction of landing areas, and clear cuts of 1 acre or more.

The DEIR concedes that “Implementation of forest treatments including eucalyptus removal could cause a significant impact on monarch butterfly by removing trees that monarch butterfly may use as roosts during winter months” and “Impacts would remain significant.” (DEIR 4.3-22) Given recent studies’ finding the species to be severely imperiled throughout the West, the lead agency may be unable to justify a statement of overriding considerations to approve this project, and the No Project Alternative should be selected, and/or the project denied.

Commenters have noted that Eucalyptus oils act as natural deterrents to pests such as mosquitos and fleas, while the area is known as a frequent destination for dog walkers. The DEIR should assess project effects to reduce this natural defense. In addition, because the Eucalyptus blooms in winter, it is an off-season food source for bees, which have also suffered alarming population declines. The DEIR should investigate and analyze this effect.
Again, the DEIR fails to completely analyze the project’s significant adverse impacts, and fails to support its conclusions with substantial evidence.

E. Conclusion

For each of the foregoing reasons, we urge that the project be denied, that the No Project Alternative be adopted, or that the DEIR be substantially revised and recirculated for public and agency review and comment.

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