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. 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 trail 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. In addition, and probably more important, SPI will avoid the negative publicity and attention of a contentious public trial. SPI succeeded in keeping it all behind the scenes. Based on the Court’s preliminary rulings, the U.S. Attorney had 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.
Rather than stand trial for their negligent acts, SPI has repeatedly attempted to change the rules in their favor . Indeed, one likely factor leading to the settlement was the concern over a high profile federal trial. Instead of risking the negative publicity of a trial, SPI chose settlement so that the matter could be disposed of out of the public’s eye. In the meantime, SPI continues to pressure the Governor and the California Legislature to change the law. There is absolutely no reason for this change in law, it is simply a giveaway and certainly counter to the public interest.
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 higher severity 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. This contrasts sharply with low and moderate severity fire behavior generally displayed within natural forests on public lands with older trees and complex structure.
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. Therefore, EPIC is disappointed that this settlement will allow SPI to avoid accountability for their forestry practices.
As the land transfer terms of the settlement are implemented, we urge the Forest Service to acquire high quality forest lands, and not settle for SPI clearcuts. EPIC is very skeptical about which lands will be offered up by SPI. We fully expect SPI to offer cut-over lands with very little ecological value and probably in need of expensive restoration efforts. We urge the Forest Service to reject SPI’s clearcuts, and demand the transfer of high quality lands containing older forests.
EPIC is committed to holding SPI accountable to the law, even when the government chooses another path. This is abundantly clear in EPIC’s Northern Spotted Owl Self-Defense Campaign, where we’re moving forward with an initiative to hail SPI into court for illegally harming Spotted Owls in violation of the Endangered Species Act. Read more about EPIC’s work to defend the Spotted Owl from damaging SPI clearcutting.