U.S. agriculture secretary wants Brown to drop wildfire proposal
This post has been updated. Please see note below.
The U.S. agriculture secretary has joined federal prosecutors in opposing Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to limit legal liability for people responsible for wildfires.
Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a Friday letter to Brown that he has “strong concerns” and warned that “the proposal could shortchange the public.”
The U.S. attorney in Sacramento, Benjamin Wagner, has also lobbied against liability limits. His office is suing Sierra Pacific Industries, the state’s largest timber company, for negligence in the 2007 Moonlight Fire, and Wagner is concerned the proposal could affect the lawsuit. Sierra Pacific could be on the hook for $600 million in damages in a civil trial that is scheduled to begin July 2.
Wagner has called Brown's proposal "a fairly cynical attempt by Sierra Pacific Industries to undermine the federal government's position." His concerns have led state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) to question the proposal as well.
Brown wants to limit the amount of money government agencies can recoup for battling wildfires and restoring damaged public lands, preventing them from seeking what his administration calls "excessive damages."
[Updated, 12:30 p.m. June 6: A spokeswoman for the governor, Elizabeth Ashford, said only that Vilsack's letter is being reviewed.]
Vilsack said he's concerned the proposal will limit the federal government's ability to rehabilitate national forests and reduce financial incentives to avoid wildfires.
"Governor, I know you are showing great leadership in addressing California’s challenging budget shortfall. I also know how committed you have been to forest conservation and the environment during your entire career in government,” Vilsack wrote. “The Forest Service will be happy to work with your office to develop a proposal that more appropriately balances all affected interests.”
The timber industry argues that federal prosecutors have taken advantage of California laws to sue for much more than the land is actually worth.
"No one disagrees that the federal government should be 'made whole' for losses associated with negligently caused fire, but there is a difference between being 'made whole' and 'made rich' from California businesses and families," said California Forestry Assn. President David Bischel in a statement.
Photo: U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack tours a plant science lab at Penn State University in May. Credit: Genaro C. Armas / Associated Press