California timber companies and other major landowners would pay significantly less money when found liable for wildfire damage under draft legislation that resurfaced Monday in the Capitol.
The proposed bill, written at Gov. Jerry Brown's request, would only apply to cases filed after the new law is enacted, according to a copy obtained by The Bee. That seems intended to address one concern of Sacramento-based U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner, who said in May that Brown's original proposal was "a fairly cynical attempt" by Sierra Pacific Industries to reduce damages in a pending wildfire case that goes to trial next week.
The legislation prevents courts from issuing double or triple awards for causing wildfires if it otherwise calculates damages based on environmental harm. It also requires that damages be based on fair market value.
Brown said in his May budget that current law "leads to claims far exceeding restoration costs." Federal prosecutors have won record amounts in recent cases, such as $102 million from Union Pacific Railroad for a 2000 fire in Plumas and Lassen national forests, well above the previous $14 million record. Awards have helped fund U.S. Forest Service restoration efforts in the past.
Despite the new language limiting smaller damages to future cases, Wagner said Monday in an email that "we still think the legislation is bad policy for future fire cases." He also noted that the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last week upheld a jury award of $28.8 million in environmental damages against a construction company for a 2002 fire in the Angeles national forest.
The same bill includes a 1 percent tax on all lumber sold in California, likely starting in 2013. The money would pay for several state agencies to review tree-cutting plans for environmental impacts and, starting in July 2013, relieve timber companies from having to pay regulatory costs. Timber groups prefer the tax to an industry fee because most lumber purchased in the state comes from outside California, and taxing consumer purchases would spread costs to wood that originated elsewhere.
Timber companies would also receive longer extensions on their tree-cutting plans, reducing the number of environmental reviews they would have to seek.
Environmentalists have long pushed for more stable funding for environmental reviews, as the lumber tax would provide, but they have also voiced objections to the bill's other provisions on liability and plan extensions.
As a tax and a bill that takes effect immediately, the legislation would require two-thirds support from lawmakers. Republicans have voiced concerns with voting for a consumer tax, while some Democrats dislike the liability provisions. It is not clear that Brown has enough support from lawmakers, but one source said he is trying to push for passage as soon as this week.