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Matthew Hoy currently works as a metro page designer at the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The opinions presented here do not represent those of the Union-Tribune and are solely those of the author.

If you have any opinions or comments, please e-mail the author at: hoystory -at- cox -dot- net.

Dec. 7, 2001
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Tuesday, August 27, 2002
Where there's smoke...: Economist Paul Krugman takes on fire policy in his latest diatribe against Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

Oops...my mistake. Krugman's attacking Bush, for wanting exactly the same thing for the rest of the fire-ravaged West that Daschle arranged for South Dakota. Thinning of the forests in an effort to minimize the effects of forest fires.

[R]ound up the usual suspects! George W. Bush's new "Healthy Forests" plan reads like a parody of his administration's standard operating procedure. You see, environmentalists cause forest fires, and those nice corporations will solve the problem if we get out of their way.

Am I being too harsh? No, actually it's even worse than it seems. "Healthy Forests" isn't just about scrapping environmental protection; it's also about expanding corporate welfare.

Let's set aside the corporate welfare argument for a moment and stick with the environmental concerns. An NBC Nightly News report last week when Bush proposed his plan to thin the forests came to the surprising conclusion that -- it works.

Everyone agrees that the forests' prime evil is a well-meaning but counterproductive bear named Smokey. Generations of fire suppression have led to a dangerous accumulation of highly flammable small trees and underbrush. And in some -- not all -- of the national forests it's too late simply to reverse the policy; thanks to growing population and urban sprawl, some forests are too close to built-up areas to be allowed to burn.

Clearly, some of the excess fuel in some of the nation's forests should be removed. But how? Mr. Bush asserts that there is a free lunch: allowing more logging that thins out the national forests will both yield valuable resources and reduce fire risks.

It's statements like that last one that lead me to believe that Krugman's never been on the front lines of a forest fire. Fortunately for you, dear readers, I have. Krugman would have you believe that large trees survive forest fires. Well, they can, of course there's no guarantee. But in order for large trees to have a chance to survive. To have that chance not only does underbrush need to be cleared, but the forest has to be "thinned." That means that some of those old trees need to be removed too.

A couple of points from the NBC News report:

Forest researcher Dr. Wayne Shepard told NBC's Roger O'Neil: "The larger trees were more widely spaced so the fire couldn't jump."

In many forests there are 10-20 times as many trees as there were 100 years ago, according to O'Neil.

Krugman ignores reality in order to toe the radical environmentalist line.

But it turns out that the stuff that needs to be removed -- small trees and bushes, in areas close to habitation -- is of little commercial value. The good stuff, from the industry's point of view, consists of large, mature trees -- the kind of trees that usually survive forest fires -- which are often far from inhabited areas.

In 100 years, those trees can grow pretty big. Clearing out the underbrush alone won't do it.

Before the era of fire-suppression, periodic forest fires would clear out the underbrush and kill many of the mature trees. Not all, but many. The heat from the fire causes the pinecones to explode, dispersing seed over a wide area. In time, some of these seeds would eventually turn into saplings and then mature trees. But if underbrush and an excess of trees exist, the fire can get hot -- too hot for the seeds to survive.

Krugman, and many environmentalists who see loggers as the embodiment of evil, are just plain wrong when they say that merely clearing out the underbrush will alleviate the fires that we've seen in recent years -- and they know it. Sen. Daschle knows it, that's why he exempted his home state from the regulations that the rest of the nation has to observe. It's also why you hear very few politicians criticizing the move -- and those that are come mainly from the Northeast where there is little fire danger.

Krugman and his ilk would also like to limit the thinning to areas surrounding homes and cities. While that would help prevent structures from burning -- it doesn't prevent the forests from burning.

So the administration proposes to make deals with logging companies: in return for clearing out the stuff that should be removed, they will be granted the right to take out other stuff that probably shouldn't be removed. Notice that this means that there isn't a free lunch after all. And there are at least three severe further problems with this plan.

Well, I've already pointed out that some of what Krugman doesn't want removed has to be removed -- if the goal of reducing the spread and severity of forest fires is to be achieved.

First, will the quid pro quo really be enforced, or will loggers simply make off with the quid and forget about the quo? The Forest Service, which would be in charge of enforcement, has repeatedly been cited by Congress's General Accounting Office for poor management and lack of accountability. And the agency, true to Bush administration form, is now run by a former industry lobbyist. (In the 2000 election cycle, the forest products industry gave 82 percent of its contributions to Republicans.) You don't have to be much of a cynic to question whether loggers will really be held to their promises.

I agree with Krugman's analysis of the forest service -- just not in the way that he intends it. Krugman would have you believe that because Bush has put a "former industry lobbyist" in charge, that the service won't hold loggers to their contracts. That's a load of baloney -- and Krugman knows it. It takes a heck of a lot to overcome the kind of radical-environmentalist bureaucracy that pervades the service.

And actually, you have to be a hell of a cynic -- because if loggers don't do their jobs and remove the underbrush too -- they'll be hauled into court by the government. The environmental lobby and the press won't stand for it -- and they shouldn't.

Second, linking logging of mature trees to clearing of underbrush is a policy non sequitur. Suppose Mayor Mike Bloomberg announced that Waste Management Inc. would pick up Manhattan's trash free, in return for the right to dump toxic waste on Staten Island. Staten Island residents would protest, correctly, that if Manhattan wants its garbage picked up, it should pay for the service; if the city wants to sell companies the right to dump elsewhere, that should be treated as a separate issue. Similarly, if the federal government wants to clear underbrush near populated areas, it should pay for it; if it wants to sell the right to log mature trees elsewhere, that should be a separate decision.

I'm not sure I've ever run across such a piss-poor analogy before in my life. As I've said before, merely clearing the underbrush won't solve the problem.

Here's a better analogy:

Krugman would have you believe that structure fires could be prevented/contained/lessened if all of the apartments in a Manhattan high-rise had the trash cans removed from them -- ignoring the wood furniture, bedding, wallpaper, wet bar and numerous offers for pre-approved, low-interest credit cards.

And this gets us to the last point: In fact, the government doesn't make money when it sells timber rights to loggers. According to the General Accounting Office, the Forest Service consistently spends more money arranging timber sales than it actually gets from the sales. How much money? Funny you should ask: last year the Bush administration stopped releasing that information. In any case, the measured costs of timber sales capture only a fraction of the true budgetary costs of logging in the national forests, which is supported by hundreds of millions of dollars in federal subsidies, especially for road-building. This means that, environmental issues aside, inducing logging companies to clear underbrush by letting them log elsewhere would probably end up costing taxpayers more, not less, than dealing with the problem directly.

Why does the Forest Service spend more money arranging the sales than it actually gets from the sales? It couldn't be money spent on lawyers to deal with appeal after frivolous appeal from the environmental lobby, could it? (Besides, I'm sure that Krugman would yell and scream if the government tried to make timber sales profitable by reducing legal costs the Daschle way.)

According to the Political Economy Research Center, the problem isn't subsidies -- it's bureaucracy.

PERC Senior Associate Donald R. Leal compared timber sales on state and national forests in Montana. The growing potential and natural characteristics of these forests were closely matched. Overall, the state's timber sales earned nearly $14 million from 1988 to 1992, while the national forests showed a loss of $42 million. This is particularly startling because the state harvest was just one-twelfth of what the Forest Service harvested.

How could the results differ so drastically? The answer is that the state carries out its responsibilities at substantially lower costs. The Forest Service is losing money on timber sales because its management approach is unnecessarily costly.

Based on state performance, it appears that the Forest Service could reduce costs in many areas. The environmental process could be streamlined without sacrificing environmental protection. Rigid, bureaucratic rules could be eliminated. Less money could be spent preparing timber sales, and expensive permanent road systems could be replaced by temporary roads.

Besides, is this really Bush's fault? Bush has been in office less than two years, and according to Krugman has stopped releasing the relevant information. So how does Krugman know about this problem? Well, the only explanation I can come up with is that it must have been happening during the previous administration too. So is it a systemic problem or some Bush-conceived right-wing plot?

So as in the case of the administration's energy policy, beneath the free-market rhetoric is a plan for increased subsidies to favored corporations. Surprise.

Bush-conceived right-wing plot -- I should've known.

A final thought: Wouldn't it be nice if just once, on some issue, the Bush administration came up with a plan that didn't involve weakened environmental protection, financial breaks for wealthy individuals and corporations and reduced public oversight?

What does this say about Daschle? Well, he must be in on it too.

12:54 AM

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