Recently, the Sacramento Bee revealed  that Governor Jerry Brown has proposed changes to long established California law to appease a wealthy timber baron. Billionaire Red Emmerson and his company, Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI), own more than 2 million acres in California, with a net worth of $2.6 billion, making him California’s largest landowner. SPI is being prosecuted for negligently starting a fire that destroyed public trust resources, but rather than play by the rules, the company has asked the Governor to change them. Affording the company an advantage in a high profile federal prosecution is clearly inappropriate. The U.S. Attorney’s office describes  SPI’s attempt to change the legal playing field as “cynical,” and we believe that it is insulting to the public and any sense of justice.
The Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) once again sees the disconnection between decisions made in Sacramento and the perspectives of citizens and local communities in California’s rural areas. EPIC, based in Humboldt County, represents environmentally aware Californians, and has championed the protection of California’s forests, clean water, sustainable economies and the state’s unique biological diversity for over three decades. EPIC has a history of challenging wealthy timber barons, which have benefited from Sacramento’s complicity through lack of governance. Once again, it appears Sacramento is poised to ignore the needs of Californians in favor of the wealthy elite.
Beyond the Governor’s obvious giveaway to SPI in the fire liability context, is a less obvious but equally egregious giveaway: a consumer tax on lumber. The proposed tax would give SPI the ability to freely pass the cost of critical public trust analysis onto the consumer. This is an obvious bailout for SPI. Without a fee-based program, as most other permitting processes require, SPI is free to pass on the costs of its clearcuts to the greater public, all without any measure of accountability. The Governor’s approach provides no incentive to engage in sustainable forestry, as practiced by many small landowners for decades, but instead allows business as usual for those large industrial landowners, like SPI, that clearcut forests across California. Rather than impose a tax on Californians, the Governor should bring California’s timber industry into the 21st century. Anyone that wishes to despoil our great state must be assessed the real cost of public trust resource review, which can be appropriately adjusted for sustainable practices, and especially for the advances made by smaller landowners.
Damaging logging plans that include clearcutting require more intensive review by state agencies such as the Department of Fish and Game, and therefore should be more expensive to permit. SPI’s clearcuts impact numerous public trust resources thereby requiring more state agency resources to evaluate the impacts. At present, this cost is born by the taxpayer, and equates to a direct subsidy to SPI. Meanwhile, genuine stewardship of California’s forests by smaller landowners goes unnoticed and unrewarded. The time has come for a responsible fee schedule, which rewards those landowners who steward their lands and are committed to the restoration of California’s natural heritage. In the case of cut and run corporations that only wish to profit off our public trust resources, they should pay. Holding billionaire timber barons accountable for the damage they have wrought on our natural landscapes and human communities is imperative for charting a new path forward to restore California’s forests.