This article was originally published for the California Association of Environmental Professionals 


The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA, sometimes called “Little National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or “Little NEPA”, was the result of very destructive post-World War II Industrial and residential growth, highway development and mineral exploration that significantly impacted the natural, cultural and visual resources in both the United States and California due to limited oversight. This included the infamous 1969 Oil Spill that devastated a large portion on California’s most scenic and environmentally sensitive coast line. As a consequence of these impacts, leaders in the U.S. Legislature shaped a series of environmental regulations including NEPA in 1969. The California Legislature followed a year later, 1970, with the first state law that could address the environmental issues of the day and subsequently spawned an entire new industry for both the public and private sectors. This article explores the roots of CEQA, the importance of the first California Supreme Court CEQA legal battle (the Friends of Mammoth vs. Board of Supervisors of Mono County or Friends of Mammoth decision), the establishment of the first environmental management programs in Santa Barbara, San Diego and San Francisco, the creation of the Association of Environmental Professionals (AEP) and the evolution of environmental planning over the past 50 years through both the consulting firms, public agencies and the individuals who lead them.


 Santa Barbara Oil Spill Protest 

To understand why CEQA was adopted we also need to understand the changing environments of the United States. During and after World War II the Federal Government decided to create a series of programs that would expand both home ownership and mobility throughout the country. In 1944 the GI Bill ignited the growth of a new suburban nation due to access to loans to returning service men and women. The Housing Act of 1949 helped cities acquire funds to clean up inner city “slums” which predominately removed housing for the poor with little or no replacements creating displaced minority populations. Additionally the 1956 Federal-Highway Act supported construction of new highways through the country without an understanding of the environmental consequences. Finally the lack of government oversight in the 1940’s through the early 60’s leads to a number of unexpected environmental consequences such as concern over oil spills off of the coast of California, and the use of insecticides and other chemicals as amplified in Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring”. In the 1960’s, the pollution of the Great Lakes became a rallying point for environmentalism in the United States. The pollution of Lake Erie and its nearby waterways was so great that debris on the Cuyahoga River caught fire. The so-called Lake Erie Fire in 1969 became a media sensation and helped push environmentalism into the public consciousness.

“Silent Spring” author, Rachel Carson

In 1968 the U.S. Congress formed a joint House Senate task force to identify a “National Policy for the Environment”. The task force was led by Senator Henry Jackson of Washington, the Chairman of the Committee on the Interior and Insular Affairs and Congressman George Miller from California, Chairman of the Committee of Science and Astronautics. The issue was succinctly defined by a report from the National Academy of Science that stated:

“We live in a period of social and technological revolution in which man’s ability to manipulate the processes of nature for his own economic and social purposes is increasing at a rate which his forebears would find frightening, there is a continuing worldwide movement of population to the cities. The patterns of society are being rapidly rearranged and new sets of aspirations, new evaluations of what constitutes a resource, and new requirements in both types and quantity of resources are resulting. The effects on man himself of the changes he has wrought in the balance of great natural forces are but dimly perceived and not at all well understood. It is evident that the more rapid the tempo of change is becoming, the more sensitive the whole system of resource supply must become in order to cope with the greater rapidity and severity with which inconsistencies, conflicts, and stress from independent innovations will arise. If divergent lines of progress are seen to give rise to ever-greater stresses and strains too fast to be resolved after they have risen and been perceived, then obviously the intelligent and rational thing to do is to learn to anticipate those untoward developments before they arise.”

The result of the task force was the development of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), all signed into law by President Richard Nixon. On April 22, 1970, 22 million Americans celebrated the first Earth Day. These activities also led to California Assemblyman John Knox from Contra Costa County to author the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The Birth of CEQA and the Friends of Mammoth Decision

Assemblyman John Knox was elected to the California legislature in 1960 and served through 1980. He became an avid supporter of environmental issues and responsible local governance with the coauthoring of legislation to create the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) in 1963.

Assemblyman John Knox Author of CEQA

In 1969 he was the chief author of legislation to establish the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) for the protection of San Francisco Bay and in 1970 he was the principal author of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The true mark of Knox’s reputation was his ability to convince Governor Ronald Reagan to sign the legislation.

Since the Act was designed as a stripped down version of NEPA it was believed that it would only address public projects and utilized very broad statements concerning environmental policies and objectives with few definitions. Then came The Friends of Mammoth versus the Board of Supervisors of Mono County case which would redefine the law and environmental planning in California. The case focused on the question of should CEQA apply with the appropriate environmental review to a private development of condominiums that required approval from the Board of Supervisors of Mono County. According to Antonio Rossmann in his 1997 Environmental Law presentation of the 25 year legacy of the Friends of Mammoth there were four factors that influenced the court on its ruling.

First, and indispensably, were the remarkable similarity of NEPA and CEQA; that the initial NEPA regulations required environmental impact statements for federally-licensed private activity, and that Judge Skelly Wright’s forceful D.C. Circuit opinion had called for a vigorous and generous application of NEPA in Calvert Cliffs. Second is the time, the case arising as it did at the dawn of the modem environmental age; reflected in law with federal judicial and legislative responses to our threatened environment; and the California Legislature’s enactment not only in 1970 of CEQA, but also one year later of AB 1301 and its mandates for consistent and environmentally-sound land use planning. Third was the apprehension-particularly here in California, as poorly planned subdivisions were mapped in the Tahoe Basin, with Point Reyes  and the West Marin hills looming as the next loss-that premature development would irreversibly destroy our most precious and remote natural preserves. And finally, of course, this case was presented in this context in 1971 and 1972 to the most distinguished state court in the nation.”

In March of 1972 Knox introduced Assembly Bill 889 to further define the implementation of CEQA through the preparation of Guidelines by the Office of Planning and Research (OPR). With the Friends of Mammoth decision these Guidelines had a greater definition of how to implement the new law. First it defined the term Project to mean a “Discretionary Action” and further defined “Ministerial Action”. It also went on to define a “Significant Effect on the Environment” as:

(1) The potential to degrade the quality of the environment, curtail the range of the environment, or to achieve short-term, to the disadvantage of long-term, environmental goals

(2) Possible effects of a project which are individually limited but cumulatively considerable

(3) Effects which will cause substantial adverse effects on human beings, either directly or indirectly

The Bill went on to direct OPR to develop a list of projects that would not have a significant impact on the environment and the birth of the first CEQA Guidelines.

CEQA’ s Evolution and the Association of Environmental Professionals

As CEQA was being refined by both the courts and Office of Planning and Research Local Governments were gearing up on how to implement the new law. On a similar front traditional environmentally oriented businesses including geology, biology, archaeology and civil engineering firms were viewing the new law as an opportunity for expanded services. A few of the first environmental consulting firms included Environmental Science Associates (ESA) in 1969, Jones and Stokes Associates in 1970, Environmental Impact Planning (EIP) in 1971, Westec Services in 1972 and RICK Environmental Consultants (RECON), also in 1972. These were also followed by local governments creating specific Environmental Management Groups particularly in San Diego, Santa Barbara and San Francisco.

Leaders of these various public and private entities found it necessary to create a professional organization to mirror both the new professions identity and its growth as an independent element in the field of environmental planning and management. In 1974 the California Association of Environmental Professionals (AEP) was founded as non-profit association of public and private sector professionals with a common interest in serving the principles underlying the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The specific and primary purposes of the association was to establish and operate a professional association of persons involved in and committed to improving the processing and implementation of environmental assessment, analysis, public disclosure, and reporting.

The first President of the Association was Al Reynolds who at the time was leading the Environmental Program at the County of Santa Barbara. He was later followed by a succession of business leaders from the private and public sector. These included Paul Zigman, the founder of Environmental Science Associates (ESA), Robert Jones, a past Director of Fish and Game who founded Jones and Stokes and Ron Bass, an attorney and environmental planner who originally worked for the Office of Planning and Research (OPR) and helped prepare the early CEQA Guidelines before joining the private sector and coauthoring a major work on CEQA. AEP continued to be a major player in both the legislation through a variety of lobbying efforts and education with t a variety of training programs.

CEQA continues to evolve through a series of court cases reflecting a variety of environmental and community issues. These include the addition of local Significance Thresholds, Alternative Analysis, Mitigation Monitoring Programs, the elevation of Native American issues, Green House Gas, VMT, Environmental Justice and a number of other integrated programs with California’s growth.

In light of our changing world and the continued threats from climate change, evolving social issues, affordable housing needs, mobility trends, public health requirements and new technologies affecting city design it can be anticipated the CEQA will continue to evolve.