For the first time in more than a decade a significant piece of forest legislation has been proposed that enjoys both industry and environmental community support.  Moreover, the legislation, AB1492, would provide critical relief for all private landowners from excessive claims made by the federal government for wildfires.    The legislation is a package, forged through a collaborative process with compromise from all parties, and it also contains a 1% fee on lumber sold in California.    The fee will insure that all lumber sold in California (whether it is produced here or in Oregon or Washington or beyond) pays the same regulatory administration costs, as opposed to moving to load all these costs just on California landowners.   The fee will insure that all lumber consumed in the state pays the same fair share of California’s forest regulatory system.

Purists are quick to argue that this new “tax” is a terrible precedent – shifting the cost of regulation to consumers and “feeding an insatiable beast” in Sacramento.   The argument sounds good in isolation, but misses practical truths that must be acknowledged :

  1. California is a resource rich state, and yet imports over 70% of the lumber it consumes annually.
  2. California landowners already pay fees that are ten times those charged in neighboring states, and absent the proposed legislation California landowner fees will go up dramatically
  3. California landowners, legislators and voters all require the high environmental standards that exist in our state today to be maintained

The lumber fee will generate $30 million per year annually.   It will cost less than 50 cents on the average lumber ticket at a big box retailer in the state, and less than $150 on a new $300,000 house.  For this we get a more level playing field for our California lumber producers.  This means MORE forest management, lumber production and jobs right here in California, and likely a more competitive lumber market since the change in policy should lead to a greater supply of California produced lumber.

To those who say “kill the lumber tax” and suggest we just reform the existing regulatory system, we have to ask “how much progress has been made ‘reforming’ forest regulation in the last ten years?”   The need for reform has been well understood for more than a decade.   It is time to move beyond the pursuit of the ideal and instead to secure what is achievable.   More than 25,000 working families in California depend on addressing these important policy issues, including the lumber assessment.   The package also contains mandated improvements in the existing regulatory system, as well as a rigorous assessment and reporting of all state resources applied to forest regulation.

While the lumber fee has drawn criticism in recent weeks, the $30 million to be collected annually pales compared to the savings this bill offers to the State, California companies and, therefore, consumers in wildfire liability reform.    The federal government has relied on ambiguity in California law to uniquely pursue wildfire damages against California landowners that are 6 to 8 times the commercial loss incurred.   While forest landowners are one target of the federal government, ranchers, farmers, railroads and regulated utilities are just a few of the others.    The forest package clarifies California wildfire liability law in a way that allows the federal government to be justly, as opposed to excessively, compensated for fires.

While the mood of our times may be partisan, we are confident that our elected officials are still able to rise above ideology for good policy.   Last year many legislators from both sides of the aisle supported the “Amazon internet sales tax” to make the playing  field more level between in state brick and mortar retailers (who employ Californians and pay taxes in California) and out of state internet distributors (who historically have employed no Californians and have paid no California taxes).    Our leaders supported the internet sales tax (7% on all products sold over the internet –  certainly more than 1% of the sales price of some lumber) because it was good policy.    The same should be true for the forest reform package.   It will improve  forest management and increase  lumber production and jobs right here in our own state.