Supervisor Faces Charges for Saving Taxpayers Money
PLACERVILLE, CA: One wonders what is more incendiary, El Dorado County Politics or dry timberlands overcrowded with fuel. Local residents are familiar with the kind of wildfires that scorched the earth in the Meyers area of Tahoe, the Cleveland forest area between Tahoe and Placerville, and the recent Rim fire near Yosemite. They are also aware of the scorched earth political process playing out in the courtroom as DA Vern Pierson attempts to drive Supervisor Ray Nutting from office.
The prosecution stems from a complaint made by Auditor Joe Harn, a political enemy of Ray Nutting, over some paperwork errors allegedly made by Nutting on grant and FPPC paperwork. The paperwork errors are minor by any standards and the governing body, the FPPC, has already issued a warning to Nutting that his error will cost him a fine of $400. But the DA has other things in mind.
The DA has brought criminal charges against the Supervisor in a high-risk gambit that will have serious consequences for one, or the other, as the case goes to trial on Tuesday. The DA alleges Fraud and has charged the Supervisor with a number of Felonies that, if convicted, would force the Supervisor from office.
The DA alleges that the Supervisor has cleverly manipulated the state administered program and worked in collusion with other agencies in a "quid pro quo" that if they signed off on his grant payment, Nutting would vote to support their agencies funding. The claims are tenuous at best, and run counter to what many say is Nutting's nature. In an ironic twist, the same people that have been saying Nutting is “stupid” are now claiming that he also is a clever manipulator that has worked the complex system, many high-ranking govenmental employees, and several agencies in the process. It will be hard to make these to claims come together in the courtroom, but the DA is willing to try. But his attempt to do so may have serious consequences for the DA.
It has long been rumored that the DA is just spending some time in El Dorado County on his way to the State Attorney's office but a high profile loss will have negative consequences for his chances of career advancement. Already the DA is alleged to have offered Nutting a sweetheart deal that was contingent on him leaving office. But the Supervisor has refused such a deal commenting that the voters put him in office to represent them, and it is the voters that will determine when it is time for him to leave office, not the politically motivated DA.
Complicating matter for the DA is revelations this month that the DA himself has violated similar disclosure requirements of the FPPC but no one is prosecuting him. This has left many sideliners accusing the DA of hypocritical behavior and adding fuel to the claim that the prosecution is more about politics than justice.
Nutting is already termed out, meaning the voters of El Dorado County already have a provision that limits Supervisors to two consecutive terms in office and then mandates they must sit out the next election for that office. At the time of passing the provision advocates said this would take away the power on incumbency and allow for better representation for the voters. All local elected offices have the same provision, but state mandated positions such as DA, and Auditor are exempt from such provisions because the State regulations supersede our local restrictions. Two of those are Joe Harn and Tax Collector Cherie Raffety that have a combined time in local office of almost 50 years.
Nutting is in the last term and will not be able to seek re-election as Supervisor. Although the fight between the DA and Supervisor is well known, and described by a Sac Bee reporter as “bare knuckled”, there has been no effort by Nutting’s opponents to unseat him by a recall election. A recall is an election whereby voters can remove an elected officer mid-term. The only effort to remove Nutting from office is coming from the DA, and his ‘GOBs’, by attempting to convict him of an office-related offence in his work as Supervisor that will result in the triggering of a provision that mandates his loss of office. It has been widely rumored, and not denied by Nutting or the DA’s office, that the DA has offered Nutting a plea deal that is an effective hand-slap, if only he relinquishes his office.
Nutting has refused saying that would be a betrayal of the voters and effectively giving the power of the voters to a cadre of elected officials and backroom power players.
It is alleged by Nutting that the DA is working in concert with some local politicos to get Nutting out of office because he will “not play ball” with what is derisively called the GOBs, or “Good Old Boys” club of El Dorado County. Nutting is well know as an independent-minded politician that ran outside the establishment and has refused to support establishment political stances just to “get along.” One of those stances is the Fire Fuel Reduction grant that Nutting is among hundreds of landowners in using to reduce fire fuels in forested areas to reduce the chance of catastrophic wildfires.
Although Nutting is known as a conservative taxpayers advocate and has been endorsed repeatedly by taxpayers groups, he is being criticized by local politicos for taking advantage of a Grant program available to California landowners. Some ultra-conservatives feel any grant is taxpayer funded and is to be avoided like the plague. They feel that any politician that would utilize a grant must be driven from office in the conservative county of El Dorado.
Nutting has a different take on the issue. Nutting claims that the money from the grant is no windfall for the recipient, but a simple reimbursement for the cost of fire reduction. In fact, Nutting’s cost for the fire-fuel reduction exceeded the reimbursed amount of the grant. Additionally, Nutting admits that a number of fires on his timberland have resulted in him being billed for the cost of fire response efforts. Nutting explained that the cost of fire prevention on his land exceeds any grants he has received. But he goes on to say this is far less costly than the costs of a catastrophic wildfire.
Nutting explains that the problem he, and many others in the state face, is the inability to log the land due to increasing environmental regulations. He said that active logging operations regularly thin excessive growth to encourage tree health. The thinning focuses on removing “underbrush” that robs trees of needed elements like water and thinning of trees too close to each other for healthy growth. This heavy brush is also the critical “ladder” element that that leads to catastrophic conflagrations like the Meyers, Cleveland, and Rim fires as fire spreads from grasses, to brush, to treetops, and then travels across closely growing trees canopies (Crown Fires) at speeds that consume acres of forest in just minutes.
The increasing severity of wildfire in the US has led to many studies and an evolution of fire suppression by the US Forest Service. Over 20 years ago a study on “Fire Scar Dendrology in the Sonora Forest of Mexico” revealed a critical flaw in US forest fire policy in the US. The study was seeking answers to why Mexico’s dryer forest, and Mexico’s lack of fire response efforts, resulted in less damaging fires in Mexico than in the US. The study concluded the most fires resulted from lightning strikes and that they happened very frequently burning small patches of land and reoccuring every few years. Rather that catastrophic fires, they resulted in minor localized fires burning just a few acres. This natural fire starting process, and the lack of intervention by fire suppression efforts, resulted in many thousands of fire that just burned the understory of brush and left the trees standing and living. That was determined by the fire scars on the trees and the telltale signs of lightning strikes like stike scars and “flagging.”
This evolution of wildfire understanding has led to major changes in fire suppression efforts in the US. In many cases it is not possible to let nature take its course after decades of suppression efforts that have resulted in very heavy growth of the brush in our forest and the close proximity of critical infrastructure like the Hetch Hetchy reservoir near the Rim fire that threatened the water supply for the San Francisco bay area.
Now removing the overgrown understory has become a major effort by agencies as far reaching as the US National Forest Service to those as local as our neighborhood “Fire Safe”councils. The grant that Nutting used to clear some of his lands of this dangerous underbrush, and the same grant that has some other politicians complain about his use of, is part of the effort to stop fires like the Myere’s fire, before they go from a small local fire to something that is uncontrollable and costing millions of dollars in damage.
Nutting contends that this effort saves taxpayers money. A recent study released earlier this month by the U.S. Forest Service and the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, a state agency, validates Nutting’s claims.
The report said the benefits of fire-resilient forests could outweigh the fuel-reduction costs by as much as 3-to-1.
Sometimes it is useful to validate common sense with careful study. Here’s a report that does so:
Study: Investing in forests reduces megafires and saves millions
Cost-benefit analysis in Sierra Nevada shows savings of up to 3 times to pay for treatments up front
San Francisco, CA — A new study released today finds investing in proactive forest management activities can save up to three times the cost of future fires, reduce high-severity fire by up to 75 percent, and bring added benefits for people, water, and wildlife.
“Recent megafires in California and the West have destroyed lives and property, degraded water quality, damaged wildlife habitat, and cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars,” said David Edelson, Sierra Nevada Project Director with The Nature Conservancy. “This study shows that, by investing now in Sierra forests, we can reduce risks, safeguard water quality, and recoup up to three times our initial investment while increasing the health and resilience of our forests.”
The Mokelumne Watershed Avoided Cost Analysis examines the costs and benefits of reducing the risk of high-severity forest fires through proactive techniques like thinning and controlled burns. Set in the central Sierra Nevada, just north of last year’s destructive Rim Fire, scientists modeled likely future wildfires with and without proactive fuel treatments. The results indicate that investing in healthy forests can significantly reduce the size and intensity of fires and save millions of dollars in structure loss, carbon released, and improved firefighting safety and costs.
Megafires have become much more common in the last decade—the average size of a fire today is nearly five times the average fire from the 1970s, and the severity is increasing. The Sierra Nevada is at especially high risk this year with only one-third of normal snowpack as a result of the drought. “Many scientists are predicting an increase in the size and severity of fires due to a changing climate,” said Jim Branham, Executive Officer of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy. “These fires, such as last year’s Rim Fire, degrade wildlife habitat, release massive amounts of greenhouse gasses, and can result in many other adverse impacts.”
Last year, the U.S. Forest Service spent $1 billion to cover firefighting shortfalls, taking money from programs that fund activities designed to reduce the risk of such fires. New bipartisan legislation called the Wildfire Funding Disaster Act seeks to address this problem by creating a reserve fund dedicated to excess firefighting costs, similar to the way FEMA provides funds to respond to other natural disasters.
“Our ongoing goal is to increase the pace and scale of our restoration work and this study strongly supports that,” said Randy Moore, U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Regional Forester. “Our current pace of restoration work needs to be accelerated to mitigate threats and disturbances such as wildfires, insects, diseases and climate change impacts. The goal is to engage in projects that restore at least 500,000 acres per year. Many types of projects help us reach our restoration goals including mechanical vegetation treatments, prescribed fire, and managing wildfire for resource benefits.”
The study is authored by the U.S. Forest Service, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, and The Nature Conservancy and was developed in consultation with a broad range of local and regional stakeholders. It concludes that the benefits from proactive forest management are 2-3 times the costs of fire fighting and that increasing investments in such activities would benefit federal and state taxpayers, property owners (and their insurers), and timber companies.
For more information on the Mokelumne Avoided Cost Analysis, or to download the study, please visit www.sierranevada.ca.gov.