Round 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Originally published in The New York Times, 8.27.02