Clinton's Forest Disaster

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You’ve heard that government policies can cause unanticipated bad effects? My own opinion is that government is the source of just about everything wrong with the world. This view is confirmed many times over when you consider the current forest-fire fiasco. Government is the cause of the fires now raging out of control across the West, just as surely as if Clinton himself had spread the fuel and lit the match.

On this, the Republican leadership is exactly right. Both Denis Hastert of the House and George W. Bush have put the blame on the Clinton administration for their land grabs and their crack-down on logging. Indeed, government’s restrictions in the 1990s and its relentless squelching of fires, along with a long string of outrageous land grabs, have caused logging to fall 75 percent on government lands (lands the government shouldn’t own to begin with).

And then what happens? Is nature permitted to sprout forth unimpaired by human hands and internal combustion engines? Well, yes, for awhile, until another side of nature shows itself. The brush and dead trees accumulate, and new saplings, crushed together in untenable density, suck up available water causing old growth trees to die and be infested by bugs, adding to the ever-thicker underbrush. This is a prescription for massive fire, and with drought, millions of acres are turned into tinder boxes, and all is lost.

Hence we have an unanticipated consequence of government regulation: not conservation but the massive fires we see today. Already, these fires have drained the budgets of fire fighting crews, wiped out 5.22 million acres of trees, burned hundreds of homes, and killed untold numbers of valuable livestock and game animals. And how can you compare the vast air pollution these miles of fires create with the average factory? Gee, I wonder what brilliant idea the environmentalists will come up with next?

The damage having been done, there is only one reasonable course: permit logging companies to henceforth thin the forests. Granted, huge swaths of this government-owned land is covered with diseased and decaying trees that are useless for the logging industry. That’s also thanks to government regulations. But permitting loggers to start the thinning process would at least get us on the right track again.

So what does the Clinton administration propose? Not private logging but a huge new government program that will put the government in charge of thinning forests at a cost of hundreds of millions to the taxpayer! Instead of permitting private enterprise to make money to clean up the government’s disaster, the Clinton administration proposes to steal OUR money to thin out the forest themselves. And no doubt the government will botch the job as it botches everything.

A draft being circulated within the Forest Service imagines a 40-year project to clear out underbrush in 40 million acres over 15 years, tossing out the small trees and leaving the big ones. And what will this cost in dollars and manpower? Nearly one BILLION per year, and that’s only the first round of estimates. Count on it being five and ten times as much. We are talking about a full-scale, Soviet-style centralized industrial plan to do what loggers would gladly do at a profit if they were permitted to.

The insanity of this idea just boggles the mind. Why doesn’t the Clinton administration consider allowing private enterprise to do the job of clearing out forests? First, it’s a matter of pride, since it was these lunkheads that first came up with the idea that forests should be “preserved” in their pristine state. Second, they are socialist puritans consumed with fear that someone, somewhere, might being making a profit. Third, they are captured by environmentalists whose strange religion exalts the rights of nature above the rights of man.

But as these fires show, government intervention can unleash terrors undreamt by central planners. Who knows what kinds of demons will be unleashed by the proposed government thinning plan?

Ironically, if this central plan is to be stopped, it will likely be due to counter-lobbying by the environmental groups that can’t admit to themselves (or are secretly happy) that their ballyhooed plan to save the forests through conservation has actually ended up destroying them. For example, the Flagstaff, Arizona, effort to permit limited logging for purposes of thinning has come under heavy criticism from people who see it as a veil to permit a capitalist ravaging of mother nature.

But if we are not to have forests that ignite in raging fires, destroying valuable timber, livestock, and game, and we are not to have a grotesque government plan that would send bureaucrats out to blindly trash every other tree they see, what is the answer?

An otherwise outstanding monograph on this subject put out by the Political Economy Research Center (“Forests: Do We Get What We Pay For?” By Holly Lippke Fretwell) recommends: new systems of government management that recognize the needs for multi-use forests, competitive bidding for tree clearing, devolution in regulation, and the like. But these solutions don’t go far enough; they might even be compared with Gorbachev’s desire to introduce market incentives into a socialist economy.

The only real answer is private ownership. That path alone is the answer to the forest and the forest fire problem. With private property, owners are free to cut and thin. The owners themselves profit from logging, and from replanting. They are free to permit tourists. Or they are free to let the natural cycle of growth and burning take place, provided they don’t damage anyone else’s property at the same time. Forests will fall into the hands of those who value them the most.

This is not some utopian experiment. All over the South, private forests profit by providing the bulk of the nation’s lumber. They are run by people who love trees because they understand that they must be cultivated and tended to in order not to become dangerous and instead to improve our lives. The family-owned forests of the South are just as much a part of the free enterprise economy as Silicon Valley or multinational oil conglomerates. And the South also features huge private nature preserves like Callaway Gardens. This too is part of the capitalist way.

Bush and Hastert have no such radical solution in mind, though I don’t believe any other solution is feasible in the long run. But at least they have recognized the problem. Indeed, anyone who has thought seriously about this issue has recognized the problem, and that the Clinton administration has caused it. Raging fires destroying mile after mile of land this regime said it wanted to protect: it is a fitting end for a bad policy and an apt metaphor for what the White House has wrought throughout the 1990s.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. He also edits a daily news site, LewRockwell.com.

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