Union Pacific Railroad Co. has agreed to pay $102 million to the U.S. Forest Service for a 2000 wildfire north of Sacramento in a landmark settlement that dramatically increases the stakes in punishing those responsible for setting forest fires.
The settlement announced Tuesday marks the most money the Forest Service has received in a lawsuit and was undergirded by a first-of-its-kind ruling by a federal judge, officials said.
U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr. said Union Pacific was not only responsible for the cost of firefighting and lost timber but also for damage to young growth, soil, wildlife, habitat, recreation use and views. Damrell also ruled that the forest was more valuable because it was protected against logging by Congress.
Federal prosecutors said the settlement should send a message that the government is serious about prosecuting those who set wildfires – even if it is by accident.
“We want those individuals or corporations operating lawfully in our national forests to be on notice,” U.S. Attorney McGregor W. Scott said. “We’re paying attention and very focused about regaining, not just (fire) suppression costs but lost resources to the country.”
Five Union Pacific workers were accused of neglecting safety precautions when using power tools to repair track on Aug. 17, 2000, in Plumas National Forest.
Legal experts said the settlement has broad implications because of the judge’s view of the forest’s value and the high level of liability Union Pacific shared for setting the blaze.
“It’s an important development in the law to have courts saying decisions aren’t limited to the value of timber,” said Sean Hecht, executive director of the Environmental Law Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. “A calculation is now allowed to look at the value of wildlife and the ecosystem. It seems to me that’s the correct view; otherwise it’s like saying there’s no consequence to someone burning land that didn’t have saleable timber.”