Property Rights Foundation of America®

Reprinted from the Proceedings of the Fifth Annual New York Conference on Private Property Rights (PRFA 2000)

Closing Address - Burning Issues—The Dangers of Government Forest Management
Robert H. Nelson, Ph.D.
Professor of Environmental Policy, School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland

Thank you very much, Carol. I might say that my timing in this book, I call it reverse Murphy's Law. Sometimes everything goes right,—having a book come out in June with a title A Burning Issue, on forest fire, and, of course, the West was burning up at about that time. Over the last couple of months, it exposed me to a new world of media, not a new world, a couple of television shows, mainly radio, talk radio, which is the vehicle for communication for a lot of people in this country. Some people say, well, how did someone like you get into this? Some of the talk radio hosts will say, what's this academic concerned about fire and property rights? I have to admit that most of my colleagues don't have too much of a concern. In fact, my own training when I started off was that I started off in academic economics and in a certain sense what they were teaching us was how to manage property rights. That is to say, no property rights. But I did have some interesting experiences.

Just last week I spent five minutes looking through some boxes in my cellar for this little article. It is two pages in a journal Public Finance from 1972, and you might ask what was I spending time in my cellar for. Well, it turned out last week that I co-authored it with James Heckman and he got the Nobel Prize in economics. It was last week literally. It was my first article and I think it might have been his. I told him to get out of economics.

But I followed the advice, actually. I did get out of academic economics for a variety of reasons, and I went to work in the Interior Department and actually worked there for 18 years. So that is another element of experience that is different from most people in this room, and you might say, well, what were you doing spending 18 years in the government? Well, it is actually a good place to learn, for one thing, and to understand what it is that makes the country work, but actually I also thought you could do a lot of things. It didn't take too long to come to the conclusion that in many matters the emperor has no clothes, so to speak, and most of the rationales for government action, at least in a lot of areas, are extremely superficial if not outright false.

So I went back to the academic world having had enough experience in the real world to really learn something and I wrote a column recently for Forbes Magazine. I write columns for Forbes about three or four times a year. Anyway, my most recent one is called "Abolish the Forest Service." We can hand this one around if anyone wants. It is in the September 18 issue of Forbes and at least one person in the audience here has already gotten it by FAX. I noticed that it seems to being spread around quite a bit. But, anyway, after spending 18 years in the federal government, my conclusion was that at least in the areas of federal lands a lot of what was there should simply be abolished.

Those of you who might be interested actually in looking at this article as well as some of the other things that I have been writing on public lands can easily obtain them. I testified twice during these past three months before Congress on fire issues. All that stuff as we have been hearing today, due to the miracle of the web is actually very easily available. I am also affiliated with the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Their name has come up here a few times and they have a web site where you can go and find this Forbes article, various other writings of mine on fire, as well as a lot of other stuff that CEI does.

Let me give a brief background before I get to the substance of what I am addressing. If this were a western audience I wouldn't bother to do this, but I am not sure everyone here knows as much about the extent of federal land in the United States. Just to give a very brief capsule summary, the United States in total is two billion acres. Out of that about 600 million acres is federal land; so it is around 30 percent. Now, out of that 600 million, about, well, exactly 192 million belong to the Forest Service. So the Forest Service is about 10 percent of the United States, mostly in the West. In some states it is a huge presence. The largest percentage of Forest Service land is in Idaho, where the National Forests which are managed by the Forest Service represent 40 percent of the land area of the state of Idaho. But even in California which you might not think would have that much, 20 percent of the land area of California is National Forest and another 25 percent of California is federal land. So we are talking about 45 percent federal land even in California.

Now the focus for my book that Carol mentioned and held up a copy of at the lunch, briefly, is about the Forest Service. It is called A Burning Issue: A Case for Abolishing the U.S. Forest Service. So the Forbes column is a follow-up on the book.

The Forest Service was created in 1905. The founder was Gifford Pinchot, who was one of the famous progressives of the time. It was founded in the atmosphere of the progressive era, which was scientific management, faith in technical expertise, an increasing centralization of power at the federal level, and all together a philosophy that you can encapsulate in the term "scientific management by government of society." This includes scientific management of property, which if carried to its fullest, would mean that there would really be no property rights. It was, in effect, the U.S. version of socialism in Europe, had the same roots, the same kind of general outlook and philosophy.

The record of the Forest Service was similar to the record of socialist enterprises in other countries around the world. Pretty much an economic disaster from, well certainly from any time they started spending any significant amounts of money. It was chronically economically inefficient. It made investments in the wrong places, despite having enormous wealth and material assets and natural resources. I mean we are talking about 10 percent of the United States. There are a lot of minerals, timber, oil and gas; yet it still lost huge amounts of money. In fact, it long ago gave up any claim to try to cover its cost. It has gotten worse in the 1990s. Most recently, in 1999 the revenues of the Forest Service were about $780 million and the land management budget of the agency was about $2.3 billion. So they probably had agencies in Poland that did better than that. But it is in the same category. Now even that doesn't count forest fire, for which is we can spend huge amounts. Of course it depends on the year, but in this current year we are going to spend about $1 billion on fire suppression. So you could add that to the losses for the year 2000 on top of the large pre-existing losses.

I am going to talk about fire. That is the most recent area of gross mismanagement. It represents an attempt on the part of the Forest Service to apply what they thought, or at least what they claimed, was scientific management. Fire—and management of fire and control of fire—was supposed to be one of the principal examples of their scientific skills and management abilities. In particular, what they did was to institute a regime of fire suppression throughout all the forests.

Now, there were some reasonable objectives to that. It did protect timber from burning and some of that timber was very valuable, and it did protect homes sometimes. But the Forest Service also turned it into a virtual religious crusade against fire and also a great PR bonanza as in Smokey Bear, which probably most people here can remember. Or at least some people here can remember. I'm not sure. At one time Smokey Bear was one of the great public images of the United States. It turned out, however, that fire suppression was actually not such a great idea scientifically or in any other way. We always have to keep in mind, and our technical experts of the 20th century have a hard time with this, but there is this thing called the Law of Unexpected Consequences. It seems to interpose itself in a lot of places and a lot of times despite the smartest people, or at least the people who think they are smartest trying to anticipate things.

In any case, when you suppressed fire, there was one basic problem. You increased, you kept on increasing, the wood volume on the forest. If you suppress fire, you didn't exactly, yeah, you prevented fire this year, but the trees continued to grow and so you didn't get rid of the wood. So actually what you were doing is continuously building up the fire hazard. In fact, the volumes of wood despite a fair amount of timber harvesting are in the West and in the inland West are now higher than they were 50 years ago. If you take the inland West as a whole, which is basically from Montana down through Colorado, Nevada, Utah to New Mexico and Arizona, there were 57 billion cubic feet in 1952. In 1992 there was 70 billion cubic feet. So all this fire suppression had led to a lot more wood being there.

Furthermore, it had changed the composition of the forest and in particular certain kinds of forest. Not all forests are the same. We don't want to use over-generalizations, but one of the most important forests found in the West, especially in the inland west, are ponderosa pine forests. They are very common. They are also at lower elevation. They are more likely to interact with private property that is intermingled with federal lands in the West in a lot of cases.

In the old days, in a ponderosa pine forest you would have maybe 50 large trees. They might be three feet in diameter. Then you had forest fire that would burn through this forest every 10 or 20 years, and the forest fire would actually clean out all the underbrush and also clean out some of the fir trees that might be trying to get settled in there but that were more fire prone. So basically you had a fairly open understory with a small number of large trees. You can see this in pictures that are available now of the West from a hundred years ago. Now you go back to the same place and what you find is that instead of this fairly open park-like terrain you have 300 to 500 trees. Now they are a lot smaller and, as I said, the total volume has increased. These trees are maybe 4 to 10 inches in diameter. Technically, they call them small diameter wood in the jargon of forestry. One of the main problems with this wood is that it is virtually kindling wood. The trees are packed together, there are large numbers of them, there is a lot of wood there, and what has happened is that by suppressing fire over many decades going back to the early part of the 20th century out West, we have created a set of firetrap forests where there is a tremendous potential of catastrophic fire.

This is especially true in National Forests. Private lands are in better shape. One, the private sector has been more concerned about protecting their lands from fire danger and also they were much more likely to thin them because actually thinning them reduces the fire hazard but also can increase the total growth potential because trees that are packed so closely together are susceptible to disease, they don't grow as fast, and there are other problems. But on the National Forest, where we have had more of a do-nothing kind of management for a long time, instead we have roughly 50 million acres, that is a quarter of the system, which are severely fire-prone and another 50 million which are somewhat fire-prone.

When these fires occur on these forest where you have these dense trees packed together, you get historically unprecedented types of fires. They burn at temperatures of 1000 to 2000 degrees. They become crown fires, that is, they don't clean up the underbrush, they actually jump to the top of all the trees. If you have old trees, the old trees were protected before because their bark was fairly fire-resistant, but now, because the fire climbs the ladder of the kindling trees that I have been describing, it reaches up into the understory of the old trees so it burns the whole forest in one stand-clearing fire.

So you had, for example, a tree that had been around in Idaho for hundreds of years was burned up in one of these fires in the 1990's. It was the oldest ponderosa pine in Idaho and it would have survived the kind of fires that it would have historically experienced.

Because of the intensity of the fire it destroys the organic matter down to maybe six or ten inches sometimes. They call it sterilizing the soil. In the older lighter fires it might have done that down to an inch. So that means the soil, the re-growth potential is significantly reduced. There is also a much greater problem with runoff, so that if you have heavy rainfall after one of these devastating types of fires, you have got heavy silting of streams, you get lakes filled up with ash-type soil running off, and it is a mess. The Denver Water Board, for example, had to spend millions of dollars cleaning out their reservoirs after one of these fires in their watershed and then it washed down and basically, you know, filled up the water with all kinds of contaminants.

That was the situation as we reached the year 2000 in the summer. Now the fire season began with the Los Alamos fire. I am sure you heard about it. The press coverage emphasized the fact that the Bandelier superintendent, which was in the Bandelier National Monument in the National Park System, had set a controlled burn when it was a bad weather condition, which was true. So it was a mistake. However, the press coverage hardly noted the fact that the fire moved almost immediately out of Bandelier National Monument onto the Santa Fe National Forest. And it was actually in the Santa Fe National Forest that it hit one of these set of fire trap conditions and it raged and then they had the bad luck to have a heavy wind come along. Wind is one of the great dangers of fire. The wind blew the fire straight to Los Alamos where 400 homes were destroyed and significant damage was done to the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

If the Santa Fe National Forest had not been a tinderbox, the error made by the Bandelier superintendent would have been a much less significant error. Now most of the forest in the Southwest, 85 percent according to the Forest Service's own figures, are in this kind of a fire-prone condition. You know, there are different degrees but all of them have significant, virtually 100 percent, have significant fire hazards relative to their historic norms.

Los Alamos, of course, turned out to be the beginning of the worst fire season since the 1950s. It is not entirely over,—could burn some more in California, for example, where the fire season is later. But at this point over 7 million acres have already burned in the West. At one point they had to close one quarter of the state of Montana to recreational access into the forest, huge chunks of Idaho burned, there was vast air pollution all over the West, lots of people had to cancel travel plans, the air pollution grossly exceeded what would be legally allowed, and, as I mentioned, there was $1 billion that we are going to spend for fire-fighting.

Another thing that I point out to environmentalists is that there was probably, certainly, the largest unplanned emission of carbon dioxide of the year 2000. So if you are concerned about global warming, you ought to be concerned about not having the forest of the nation burn down on a regular basis.

For the government, of course, this was a somewhat awkward situation for the Interior Secretary Babbitt and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. The Forest Service is in the Agriculture Department, so Glickman was the nominally responsible person. He was quick to say, well, okay, this is an act of nature. Don't blame the government. I mean, we didn't, really, you know, what were we going to do. The weather was unusually dry, and the winds were bad in some cases, so, but, you know, the record is clear. I think even Glickman wouldn't say that now. I think he just said it then, I don't think he really knew what was going on. And, of course, it is kind of difficult to be faced with the prospect of being charged with having burned down the West. So you want to come up with some spin pretty quickly to, you know, to avoid that charge. And so Glickman reached out for the first argument he could find, but by now I think even you know it has been pretty thoroughly refuted.

One of the reasons it has been refuted is there is a record of warnings going back almost ten years that Western forests are a fire hazard waiting to happen. But as far back, certainly, as 1993 we started having expert group after expert group in the forestry profession saying, look, if we don't do something, these fires are going to blow and it is going to be a mess out there. There was the National Commission on Wild Fire Disasters in 1994. They said, "Millions of acres of forest in the Western Untied States pose an extreme fire hazard from the extensive buildup of dry highly flammable forest fuels." In 1995, the Forest Service put out its own document that said something similar. Then even the joint document issued by the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture in 1995 said something similar. They warned of the extreme fire hazards "in need of immediate treatment." Then in 1998 the General Accounting Office testified to the Congress that there were "vegetation accumulated creating high levels of fuels for catastrophic wild fires transforming much of the region into a tinderbox." This is two years before the fires of 2000. And then the GAO issued another report in 1999 that said all the same things all over again.

So actually, you know now, the existence of most of these studies is sort of a broad commentary on the media, the Congress and the Executive Branch. Even though they were there and they used this extreme language of the danger, there was relatively little media attention, relatively little Congressional action. Helen Chenoweth made a big deal out of it, but she was about the only one. I mean, even the other Republican members of Congress basically just sat there and they didn't pay any attention. They didn't give her any support when she said, well, we have to do something about this situation. She was treated as a scaremonger and denounced by environmentalists and so forth. So, you know, there is plenty of blame to go around.

But, of course, the responsible parties were the Clinton Administration. They did have the agencies and they did have supposedly the technical and professional expertise, and they could have, if they had chosen to, publicized the situation, but they didn't. So they, in effect, lost the gamble. Now they still have, though, as I said, once this started happening, they started engaging in various forms of spin control.

Another form that they used was they put out a number, which was widely circulated in the press, that, well, in response to some of these earlier warnings they had increased the level of fuels treatment on the National Forest from 400,000 acres a year to 1.5 million. And it was widely cited. A few days later after this number was put out, I just happened to be looking into some details of the Forest Service Annual Report. I discovered that 62 percent of the acreage that they were talking about was in the Southeastern United States, and I don't even know if they knew I long ago learned, don't trust the data from the Forest Service. So I think that, again, it is somewhat when you are in a pressured situation—and, as I say, I worked in the Interior Department, what happens is you just look around and clutch at any piece of data you can find and you don't particularly want to know if it is wrong. In fact, you would rather not ask any questions. Anyway, basically the government did nothing, if you really want to get to the bottom line, despite ten years of warnings that the West was about to burn.

Why did they do nothing? Well, there are three things. If you have all this excess wood accumulation there are three things that can happen.

One is you can do prescribed burns. That is, you go in and set deliberate burns and burn the wood off in a controlled fashion before it burns in an uncontrolled fashion.

The second thing you can do is to thin the forest mechanically. That means you basically take a chainsaw and whatever equipment and go in and cut it and sometimes you even burn it on the site then. It is easier to burn and more controllable if it has been cut already.

The third option is to basically just sit there and wait till a forest fire comes along and that cleans out the forest, too. And we seemed to have opted for the third. But, anyway, the Clinton Administration opted to the extent they did hardly anything for the idea of prescribed burning. Why? Well they have had this idea that the forest should be managed "naturally." This follows, as you know, a very popular idea in the environmental movement.

There has been pressure on the agency and on its personnel to increase the levels of prescribed burning over the last five years or so. That was an actual response. The problem is it is just hard to do prescribed burning a lot of time. If the weather is not right, if it is too dry, if it is too wet, you can't do it either. It has got to be just into a certain zone. The wind can't be too high. That is one problem. There are tremendous problems with air pollution with prescribed burning. There is the risk it will get out of control. Field people were not inspired by the example of Babbitt basically firing the superintendent at Bandelier. This didn't encourage the people down the road to take further risks in their local area in order to go with a prescribed burn, which is, you know, a scary thing for a lot of people in the local community to go out and deliberately set this fire. And some forest you can't use prescribed burning at all because they are already in such a firetrap condition that the whole thing would just blow right up if you lit a fire. It would be uncontrollable from the beginning. So not much happened there. As I mentioned, they tried to pretend that more happened, but actually not much.

Why not thinning? Well, that ran straight into this idea of naturalists. The environmental movement has just been winning all these victories with the spotted owl in Oregon and Washington and Northern California. They have been closing down timber harvesting. Timber harvest on the National Forest has gone from 12 billion board feet in 1998 which was about 20 percent of softwood timber production and soft wood is the main form, you know, best form of wood. So the National Forest was a significant timber producer, but by 1999 it was less than 3 billion board feet and headed towards zero. Basically, in the last ten years we have pretty much wiped out the Forest Service timber harvesting program. And this has been under environmental pressure. The spotted owl was the best known example but the same thing has been happening all over the West in lower profile cases using the appeals process, lawsuits, and all the other obstacles and hurdles that exist.

The environmental movement all of a sudden was confronted with what they regarded as a sneak rear-guard attack. Well, they got this new argument that they hadn't really heard before and thought, oh well, we need to jack up the level actually of timber harvest. Well, it is not going to be the old timber harvest but now we are going to harvest these small trees and cut out the excess fuel because it is not because we want the wood, it is because we have to do it to reduce the fire hazard. So the environmental movement responded to these arguments with what can only be described as extreme hostility. And they basically said they are not known for scientific precision. They basically denounced all this and said it is all a ruse. It is all a hoax. The fire stuff, they are just trying to scare you and what it really is the timber industry is reeling from all of our victories and so they have tried to come up with a surrogate reason to re-institute timber harvesting. And since the danger of fire at that point was just theoretical, you know, it was some expert reports, but who knows. The experts have been wrong about a lot of things, so you know the environmentalist didn't trust the experts and so basically they used all their power, which is very substantial, and essentially no mechanical thinning has occurred on the National forest.

And so we have actually opted for the third option, which is let them burn. Whenever it happens.

Now, this is has all been part of the move that has taken place in the 1990s on the National Forest to an idea called "ecosystem management." And so they are moving back to some broader themes.

It used to be for many years that, while the national forests were very badly managed and they were very economically inefficient and provided a couple of generations of economics graduate students with good case studies to show how badly things were being done, they at least had what you could call a human utilitarian orientation. That is, the Forest Service regarded the purpose of National Forest management to be to serve human needs,—that is, to provide wood for housing, water for cities.

But they switched to this idea of ecosystem management in the 1990s. Basically ecosystem management said that our goal should be is not any longer human use, but it should be some future condition of the forest. And so the question has been what condition should it be? It is a hard question to answer. The Forest Service has often seemed unclear itself, but they finally settled on something in the last maybe two or three years. It is going to be, we are going to manage the forest, to replicate the conditions which are "natural," that is, "characterized by pre-European settlement." So you can do this in the West. The forest Service now has researchers all over the West who are basically spending large amounts of money studying what the forests were like in 1870, 1880, 1890, and basically we are going to try and engineer the forest back to that condition. Then, once we get there, we are going to hope that we can keep it in that condition permanently. Well, I call this the "theme park" vision of management. It is like taking 10 percent of the United States and converting it into a museum piece. In fact, I am expecting, it is not completely settled yet, but a future issue of Range Magazine is going to have a piece which I wrote which is called "Disneyland Forest" and basically saying that, look, if you are going to manage for 1880, it is this kind of theme park.

I think my time has run out. I had a couple of other things that are not that critical. I will say that if anyone wants to read this book, A Burning Issue, you can get it from Roman and Littlefield, which is the publisher, and their number is 1-800-462-6420. And it will have the last three minutes of my speech, as well as a few other things.

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