Timber tax would just give industry a fire fine escape 

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In his new budget, Gov. Jerry Brown has quietly inserted provisions that would allow lumber companies and major Northern California landowners to recklessly slash trees and leave the detritus behind to catch fire. So much for Governor Moonbeam.

According to The Sacramento Bee, Brown’s budget provisions would limit liability on the part of lumber companies and landowners in cases where their negligence led to major forest fires. In return, the lumber industry would have to pay an additional 1 percent lumber tax in order to fund forestry oversight.

The tax would raise some $30 million a year to finance environmental reviews of timber harvest projects — reviews that would otherwise be starved of funds, thanks to the budget crisis. In addition, Brown’s office has claimed, the bill would keep California’s timber industry viable in the face of competition from Oregon and Washington.

But federal officials in the Sacramento U.S. Attorney’s Office have complained, arguing that the bill would undermine their efforts to hold irresponsible timber companies to account. In particular, the feds are suing Sierra Pacific Industries, the state’s largest landowner, for a major forest fire in 2007. If the U.S. Attorney’s Office is successful, the case could result in damages of up to $600 million.

If Brown’s bill passes, the potential damages exacted by the government could be reduced by as much as 75 percent. Timber companies could walk away from irresponsible forest management practices without facing the wrath of the public.

This bill is not simply a blatant giveaway to the timber industry. The increased lumber tax is significant, and the state is broke. Asking the lumber companies to finance environmental reviews of their own operations, while offering them a cap on liabilities in cases where their negligence leads to major fires, is certainly a creative option.

But it’s one that offers too much carrot and not enough stick. California’s forests are dwindling, and we have a critical interest in ensuring that our remaining woodlands are treated with care. Federal prosecutors have recently won surprisingly large damages for irresponsible forest management, including a $102 million judgment from Union Pacific for a major fire in Lassen and Plumas national forests in 2000.

That money financed the cost of fighting that fire, restoring the habitat and helping the local tourism industry recover.

And it sent a message to the timber companies: treat our forests with care. The government is watching.

Brown’s proposal is not the worst to come out of Sacramento. But timber companies must be kept on alert, not allowed to treat the last of our forests with nonchalance. We urge the state legislature to carve this provision out of the state budget and vote no.

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