Feds to Forest: Burn, Baby, Burn

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To put out forest fires, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is spending tax dollars at a stunning rate, having granted all fire-fighting agencies a “blank check” to draw on the US Treasury. We’ve gone from May’s “controlled burn” — a fire set deliberately by federal agents that wiped out whole communities in New Mexico — to this month’s uncontrolled burn of our money to stop fires that nature started in the West.

Already, the employment of fire fighters has broken all records, with 19,000 at work futilely trying to stop the burning of 1.1 million acres in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. The losses are incalculable. This year, a total of 5.22 million acres have burned, with 175 homes going up in flames in one month. As you read this, ranchers in the West are abandoning livestock to the holocaust.

For those who care about liberty and property, the implications are ominous. Think of it: an unelected bureaucrat has given government employees across the country the right to draw on unlimited amounts of federal cash. Such an action is completely incompatible with the Constitution and the rule of law. Also, the US military is being used to fight these fires, setting another precedent for the domestic use of troops. Finally, fires and all other natural disasters have come to be treated as “emergencies” necessitating the unleashing of all manner of governmental power.

It behooves partisans of liberty to understand the origin of this. Who is to blame? Nobody lit a match or left a campfire burning, as the 1970s “public-service” ads featuring Smokey the Bear would have it. Forestry experts say these fires are the result of heat plus dryness plus accumulated piles of debris plus trees growing far too thickly to be sustained. It is an explosive mix. In such cases, nature exacts a terrible price.

It’s true that forestry historians have amply documented that forest fires are a natural part of the life-cycle of a forest, thereby overturning nearly a century of governmental policy which viewed them as something always to be stamped out. But that doesn’t mean we should just throw up our hands, as the left-wing environmentalists suggest.

Truth be told, environmentalists are probably glad to see homes burn and livestock destroyed. Animals just love the fresh growth that pops up after the fire, they say. As for the valuable wood itself, they would rather it go up in flames than be sold at a profit. We might even think of forest fires as environmental regulations on fast forward. There is an important kernel of truth to the old view that forest fires ought to be prevented. It is against man’s intuition to let anything valuable just go up in smoke without reason.

What to do? Clearly, these government-owned lands need to be logged or otherwise employed to some useful purposes. As Dennis Hastert pointed out the other day, the real reason for the fires is that the Clinton regime has reduced logging of federal forestlands by 75 percent. It is the absurdity of “conservation” that created the preconditions for them to go up in smoke. The responsibility for these fires, then, rests with the administration and the environmental movement.

Perhaps we should even speak of the impossibility of conservation. The forest fires teach the lesson that forests will be logged. If it is not done with human hands with the purpose of serving human needs, it will be done at the hands of nature and serve no known human need.

Now, that is not to say that forest fires ought to be either absolutely prevented or absolutely permitted. For now, federal policy vacillates between the two extreme positions. And whether the feds are botching a “controlled burn” or ineffectively fighting fires, they are destroying property and kicking us around, via spending our money, mandatory evacuations, and the like.

So the question remains: should forests be permitted to burn or not? The answer: it depends on the will of the property owner. If there are profits to be had from cutting trees, property owners will contract out for cutting. If the price of lumber falls too low to make logging a particular area worth the costs incurred in cutting and milling, forests will be left to their own devices, in which case fires serve the useful purpose of renewing the land for later use. If the owner wants to fight the fire, he should pay for it himself. If his fire damages other people’s property, he should be held strictly liable.

That is the free-market answer to the forest-fire question, and it sure as heck makes more sense than the central-planning approach. As it is, your tax dollars are being used to fight fires which were caused by federal policy in the first place. And what if these fires are put out? We will again have forests preserved solely for the sake of preservation. And then, fires will start again next year, or in five, ten, or fifteen years, after which our tax dollars will be spent putting them out, and only after more homes have burned and livestock has been destroyed.

All this is madness. The government has made this mess. Only the free market can sort it out. The choice is ours: either we sell off these forests to owners who can use them properly, or we put up with endless federal mismanagement.

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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