Timber Giant Gets Off Cheap
Editor's note: the Sierra Club is concerned that extensive clearcutting in the Sierra Nevada puts our forests, wildlife, homes and watersheds at greater risk of severe, damaging wildfires. Clearcutting replaces complex, diverse forests with dense, highly flammable tree plantations. These tree farms are like standing matchsticks. Fires, such as the Moonlight Fire discussed in the blog by campaign partner Environmental Protection Information Center below, are often sparked by logging equipment.
Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI), the largest landowner in the state of California settled a lawsuit for negligently causing a fire in 2007 that burned over 65,000 acres, including public lands in the Plumas National Forest. The Moonlight Fire started on Labor Day, September 3, 2007, near Westwood in Lassen County. It was a hot, dry “red flag” day indicating a high risk of fire danger. According to the authorities, SPI’s contractor caused the fire as result of negligent logging operations on SPI’s lands southeast of Mountain Meadows Reservoir.
More than 3,000 firefighters and over $22.5 million was spent on fighting the fire. Over 500 homes were threatened by the Moonlight Fire and at least 100 residences were evacuated. Many old-growth trees on national forest lands were lost.
The case was brought by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Sacramento for damages to the Plumas National Forest that extended from firefighting costs, restoration costs and the value of ecosystem services lost. The case was set to go to trial this month.
It is clear that SPI got off cheap. The U.S. Attorneys were seeking compensation in excess of $700 million, and SPI will get out of it for roughly one-sixth of that amount, a good deal by any measure. As part of the $122.5 million settlement, SPI will transfer 22,500 acres of land to the U.S. Forest Service. We hope the Forest Service will choose ecologically sensitive land and not settle for clearcut areas.
In addition, and probably more important, SPI will avoid the negative publicity of a contentious public trial. By settling, SPI succeeded in keeping it all behind the scenes. Based on the court’s preliminary rulings, the U.S. Attorney had a clear case of SPI dead to rights on negligence and liability for damages. Unfortunately, the public has been denied the right to know how and why SPI’s operations caused and probably exacerbated the fire’s impact on our public forests.
The larger issue surrounding this controversy is not simply about who caused the fire, but how SPI’s land management activities contributed to higher severity fire. SPI engages in very intensive clearcutting and even-aged management resulting in a sea of young, dense tree plantations across 2 million acres in California. The best available science shows that these dense tree plantations are prone to more severe, hotter burning fire than comparable natural forests with older trees and greater ecological complexity. A recent study by the U.S. Forest Service (Miller et al 2012) clearly indicates that these tree plantations are prone to high severity, stand replacing fires.
Beyond causing the spark that started the fire to begin with, SPI should be held liable for creating forest conditions on their lands that fuel higher severity fires than would occur naturally. More extreme fires are likely as SPI converts thousands more forested acres each year to highly-flammable tree plantations.
Furthermore, as the land transfer terms of the settlement are implemented, we urge the Forest Service to acquire high quality forest lands containing older forests that provide good habitat for threatened wildlife such as the Spotted Owl, and not settle for SPI clearcuts.
-Andrew Orahoske, Conservation Director, EPIC Read more about EPIC’s work to defend the Spotted Owl from damaging SPI clearcutting.