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UC delivers oak woodland planning support to California counties

The Issue

County-based planning is often an emotionally charged, financially motivated process where decisions can potentially affect natural resources for generations. As Californians move from urban and suburban centers into lands that have historically been hardwood forests, the expansion is impacting the biodiversity and ecological integrity of the state's oak woodlands. The shifting demographics are increasing the need for sound decision making if the ecological integrity of oak woodlands is to be maintained. The UC Integrated Hardwood and Range Management Program (IHRMP) has directed its efforts at planners for the past 15 years in recognition of the importance this dedicated group of professionals have in conserving California's wild spaces.

California's oak woodlands are not subject to statewide regulatory oversight as are commercial conifer forests. Consequently, oak conservation measures are often handled by county and private planners on a fragmented, parcel-by-parcel basis. In 2004, the state passed legislation requiring all non-agricultural projects affecting oak woodlands be subject to evaluation under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Terms of the legislation required that planners must determine the project's “significance” and the impacts must be mitigated. At the time of the enactment, no existing documentation or precedent had been established to assist counties in making such determinations. The IHRMP undertook the task of articulating the complex issue of “significance” and developed a decision matrix designed to assist planners, developers and conservationists address the nuances of the new statute.

What Has ANR Done?

With the passage of the new law in 2004 counties found themselves in the mist of confounding scenarios under the auspices of CEQA. IHRMP received funding in 2006 from the Wildlife Conservation Board to design and deliver a science-based decision making matrix to assist in the evaluation of proposed projects affecting oak woodlands. The grant included support for five workshops to explain the new law and the application of the matrix.

The matrix provides a stepped process to help guide a planner (and the project proponent) through the complex issues associated with determining ecological significance of the impacts being proposed. Using examples from the scientific literature combined with the practical aspects of modern planning methods, IHRMP developed and delivered an innovative and imaginative tool that is unique and without precedent. Supportive tools within the matrix identify the type of ecological elements and processes that should be identified for possible impacts to assist in the decision outcomes.

The Payoff

Using science in a political world

The workshops to explain the changes in legislation and the newly designed decision matrix are examples of the IHRMP's efforts to reach out to those who impact the state's natural resources on a daily basis. The matrix takes planners through a series of decision steps, starting with establishing the initial ecological site condition of the proposed project. Using the initial ecological site condition, plus the proposed impacts to the structure and complexity of the woodland in question, the planner can develop a site specific matrix using “high”, “moderate” or “low” qualifiers to determine the degree of impact and the level of significance. We believe this is the first example of using a pre- and post-project comparison to help guide a decision under the law. Once the level of significance has been determined, the matrix includes a series of suggestions for consideration when discussing mitigation measures. The matrix, now posted on the IHRMP Web site, has been distributed to each county planning department and to each of the nearly 500 participants of the workshops. The final phase of the project will include an interactive blog that will allow planners to communicate in real time with peers to exchange questions, ideas and approaches to oak woodland planning.


Supporting Unit: Integrated Hardwood Range Management Program

Gregory A. Giusti, (707) 463-4495, gagiusti@ucdavis.edu