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In Praise of Forest Service Fire Tactics

The U.S. Forest Service is not the same Smokey Bear Forest Service of the past. Originally, the agency sought to preserve sustainable timber harvests by preventing all fires. Wildfire experts have shown that decades of fire suppression helped create forests unnaturally dense with fuel. Today, the Forest Service is much smarter with its fuel management choices.

In the wake of the 2012 Colorado fires, which destroyed hundreds of homes and will cost an estimated $450 million in damage, PERC President and Hoover Institution fellow Terry Anderson and PERC associate Sarah Anderson take a look at the motivating forces behind Forest Service fuel management policy. While most people think of fire suppression when considering wildlife management, Terry and Sarah focus their research on fire prevention strategies.

The duo’s ongoing research at PERC looks at how the internal organizational changes and external political, economic, and ecological environments have translated into changes in the actions of Forest Service personnel. Despite the negative attention the Forest Service receives when a large fire rages, Terry and Sarah find that the Forest Service deserves some praise for their fire tactics.

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Access Unlimited, Trout Limited

Image by Angus Mackie/Creative Commons via flickr

The May issue of Outdoor Life carried an article entitled “Can I Fish This Stream?” It included a map of the U.S. showing 45 states with “limited stream access,” 4 with “pending access litigation,” and 1 with “liberal stream access.” The one was Montana, about which the article’s author opined, “Anglers in other states should be so fortunate.” Not so fast.

Since the original stream access cases in the early 1980s, landowners have claimed that the court and the legislature took property rights without compensation. Not surprisingly, the conflict has torn the social fabric of landowner-sportsman relations in Montana.

What the author failed to note was the unintended consequences of Montana’s law, namely landowners who cannot prevent access have less incentive to preserve habitat. The now infamous Mitchell Slough case in southwest Montana illustrates what can happen. When anglers took the right to control access from landowners and created public access to the reclaimed irrigation ditch paid for by landowner dollars, owners rightfully shut off the flow leaving fish high and dry. Not only did this reduce spawning habitat for trout that previously migrated freely into the Bitterroot River over which public access has never been questioned, it reduced the incentive of other landowners to invest in such reclamation projects.

The Outdoor Life article concludes that “although Montanans were able to ward off impingement of their access rights last fall, it’s not likely that the assaults on stream and river accessibility are over.” Proponents of unlimited access fail to recognize that their assault on landowner rights is also an assault on trout habitat.

Access unlimited, yes; trout unlimited, no.

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Lessons From the Old West: The 150th Anniversary of the Homestead Act

On May 20, 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, an effort by the U.S. government to make 160 acres available to anyone who would move to unclaimed territory, build a cabin, farm the land, and live there for five years. Eventually 270 million acres were privatized by the process, ushering in the great era of “free land.” Now, 150 years later, we have the opportunity to look at homesteading as it actually worked.

Throughout the nineteenth century the federal government was committed to disposing of the vast acreage that it owned. The privatization process was important for the growth of the market economy. But the homesteading process was a wasteful way of creating private rights, and the land sales that preceded homesteading were a much less wasteful method.

There were several problems with the original Homestead Act and its subsequent alterations. The original provision of 160 acres was insufficient for agriculture in the arid west, and even when it was expanded to 320 acres in 1909 and 640 acres in 1916 it still did not provide enough acreage to support a family in most of the places where people settled. In fact, only 40 percent of those who started the homestead process were able stick it out and finalize their claims.

An even more important lesson is that it is very difficult for the government to give away almost anything for free. In the case of homesteading, much of the land available was beyond the “profitable frontier,” the point at which the lack of a market for agricultural products made settlement unprofitable. But settlers knew the land was going to be valuable at some point in the future so they raced into the West, making their claims as early as they possibly could in order to have secure property rights when the returns from the land turned positive.

People bid for the land not with money but with wasted resources, the time and effort they put into “proving up” their claims in anticipation of future profits. Many families suffered years of deprivation trying to eke out a living until they could make their claim profitable or, once they had established property rights, buying out someone else in order to obtain an operation large enough to survive.

Think of what would happen if your institution announced that it was running a budget surplus and that on June 1st $1000 would be given to the first 20 people who lined up outside the CFO’s office. People would calculate how much time they could spend standing in line in order to get $1000 and, in the limit, $20,000 would leave your organization’s coffers. But almost no benefit would be bestowed on the recipients. People would be quite willing to spend $900 of their time in order to get $1000. Some would spend $999.

The other problem with the homesteading process was that it was so costly and difficult to use that much of the western United States remained as public lands. Today, more than half of the land in the West is under federal ownership. These lands have been subject to environmental and financial mismanagement, as documented by PERC’s Holly Fretwell.

Thus the Homestead Acts had two unfortunate results: 1) the process was an unduly costly way to dispose of federal lands and 2) because of the unworkability of homesteading much of the land was never privatized.

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A Wealth of Land

The U.S. federal government owns and manages more than one-fourth of the nation’s acreage. The bulk of it rests in the West. In fact, more than half of the West is federally owned. Yet the acts that enabled states to be a part of the nation promised transfer of public domain title.

Federal land management is not the panacea it is sometimes perceived to be. Federal lands reduce the tax revenues available to states. The government does not pay property taxes. In lieu of taxes, a portion of revenues earned from resource use on federal lands is paid to the states to help pay for education and other state institutions. But revenues are down, way down, from historic trends when timber and grazing were dominant land uses. Various federal compensation packages have attempted to alleviate the lost revenues but state funds remain low.

Last week, the Utah Transfer of Public Lands Act was signed into law. The bill requires the federal government to honor its promise under the Utah Enabling Act of 1896 to transfer title of the public lands to the state. The land transfer is not about developing the land. It is about managing the land to enhance resource value. It is about managing the lands according to the desires of neighbors, rather than politicians living hundreds of miles away. It is about management by those who receive the greatest benefit from good stewardship and bear the greatest burden from poor stewardship.

As Utah legislator, Rob Bishop, said, “It is time for a shift in the paradigm about use and control of our public lands. Utah has proven to be a far more effective steward of our lands and resources than the federal government and there is no good reason why ownership and control cannot be returned back to state and people where it rightfully belongs.”

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.

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The ‘Fire Service’

The first national forests were set aside more than 100 years ago. Under Forest Service management they were intended to provide a continuous flow of water and timber for Americans. By the 1980s the agency provided about 25 percent of US softwood lumber consumption. The timber budget was the largest of all agency activities (see chart). Timber harvest on the national forests has declined by more than 80 percent since 1985. The current agency mission is ecosystem protection but spending has shifted to wildfire management which now makes up nearly half of the agency’s budget. More than half of that is for fire suppression. Nonetheless, wildfire burned nearly 70 million acres over the past decade.

Are Americans getting what they pay for on public lands? Even the General Accounting Office [PDF] questions that:

Historically, the Forest Service has not been able to provide Congress or the public with a clear understanding of what the Forest Service’s 30,000 employees accomplish with the approximately $5 billion the agency receives each year.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.

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Whoo Decides How Much Is Enough?

From the New York Times in September:

Looking around the stand, Laurie Wayburn, co-founder of the Pacific Forest Trust, which manages this 2,200-acre forest plot for the Fred M. van Eck Forest Foundation, sees a variety of things: thick, straight trees that will generate millions of dollars for the foundation; a healthy forest that filters drinking water and stores carbon dioxide; and a maturing, complex habitat for a variety of animals, including the endangered northern spotted owl.

The adage that northern spotted owls compete with forest jobs should be left to rest. There is value in old-growth forests, but to argue that preserving land is the only way to safeguard the owl is myopic. Forests are dynamic and so are species. Interestingly, science is too.

Science is the knowledge and inquiry of the natural world. Science demonstrates what is and what could be under varying conditions. Science does not, however, measure relative values.

Science cannot tell us whether timber jobs or acreage set aside for spotted owls is better. That is value based. Nonetheless, the Endangered Species Act makes it clear that species on the brink take precedence over other land uses.

In the early 1990s it was heartily argued that the northern spotted owl was competing with timber jobs. Indeed, it was determined that the primary threat to the northern spotted owl was decreased old growth as a result of timber harvest. A couple of decades later the forests have changed, the management has changed, the threat to the owl has changed, but policy argues for more of the same: preservation.

What does science tell us about the forest policy to protect the northern spotted owl?

  • Owls like mature, old-growth forests. But they also like managed forests.
  • In 1990 it was presumed that decreased old growth acreage in the Pacific Northwest was the primal threat to the northern spotted owl. In 2011 it was determined that the barred owl, a competing species that displaces the spotted owl, is the greatest threat.
  • Under the 1994 Pacific Northwest Forest Plan, 24 million acres of federal land was designated as northern spotted owl habitat. Seven million of those acres prohibit timber harvest. Harvest in the Pacific Northwest has declined by more than 80 percent as a result. Timber consumption has not similarly declined, so timber is cut elsewhere to meet demand.
  • Forests are dynamic and have changed between 1994 and 2003. About three percent of the habitat set aside for owls was lost to wildfire and insect infestation. Set aside forests are aging and becoming more vulnerable to fire and insect infestation over time. Newly matured national forest acreage suitable for owl habitat increased by about eight percent.

The critical habitat revisions proposed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011 aims to set aside more land for the owl, increase active management, and remove the barred owl.

Science cannot provide the policy solution to saving the northern spotted owl. It is inherently preference based.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.

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Should the Forest Service Promote Biomass Heating?

by Steve Bick

James Kellogg calls on National Forests supply wood to replace fossil fuels for thermal energy and boost the use of biomass heating in Western states. In a recent article in the Glenwood Springs (CO) Post Independent, Kellog explains how National Forests hold the promise of green energy. We’ve seen how heating facilities with woody biomass has taken hold in Vermont and other cold locales. Biomass heating could provide markets to facilitate forest fire fuel reduction and salvage of beetle-killed wood in Colorado and other western states.

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Between a rock and a hard place: The Mining Law of 1872

by Brennan Jorgensen

In the New York Times, Robert M. Hughes and Carol Ann Woody call for the end of the Mining Law of 1872 as a means to protect fragile ecosystems from invasive mining practices. They cite the Environmental Protection Agency’s estimates that headwater streams in 40 percent of Western watersheds are polluted by mining.

Originally established in response to the California Gold Rush, the Mining Law allows United States citizens and firms to explore for minerals and establish rights to federal lands without authorization from any government agency. The only cost to mining companies is an annual $100 holding fee for each claim, with a maximum claim size of 20 acres. Claimants may then acquire outright title to the land by obtaining a patent, at a per-acre cost of $2.50-$5. Mining firms do not pay royalty taxes on the minerals taken from federal land.

While environmental activists call for the end of the Mining Law and stricter regulations on mineral exploration and development, a PERC Policy Series by David Gerard offers a more comprehensive summary of the problem, as well as an alternative solution:

Reform advocates often imply that since the Mining Law contains no environmental protection measures, mining is unregulated. Of course, this is not the case. Mining activities on federal land are subject to federal, state and local regulations for air and water quality, solid waste, public safety and fire control. The Forest Service and BLM have their own regulations. Although regulations such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act are not mining-specific, mining firms must comply with them.

Hughes and Woody claim that the mining industry’s track record on environmental protection, “hardly inspires confidence,” but as Gerard points out, the majority of environmental degradation is a byproduct of abandoned sites, which were mined before environmental regulations went into effect.

While environmentalists speak as though polluters should be liable for the harm they cause others, a number of deficiencies in federal laws violate this principle. These deficiencies are not found in the Mining Law but, rather, in environmental laws such as Superfund and the Clean Water Act. In particular, the requirement that mining companies take on responsibility for others’ damages is hindering cleanup, not helping it. Superfund and the Clean Water Act are keeping both mining companies and state governments, which have an increasing role in environmental-protection matters, from active reclamation of abandoned sites.

The Mining Law as it now stands is not without merit. The holding fee was enacted in 1992 under the Clinton Administration, which cut the number of claims reported to BLM from one million each year down to an estimated 340,000. Additionally, the holding fee allows claimants to hold marginal sites in anticipation of changing market conditions. “Market forces rather than a statutory time constraint may determine if and when production begins,” writes Gerard.

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Bison: Public to Private

Nearly 70 bison will soon find their way from Yellowstone National Park to a couple of Montana Indian reservations. The transfer is the outcome of negotiations between the state Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Commission and tribal officials. The tribes have long wanted the majestic beasts to return to their native ground.

The long battle for relocation results from the fear of harm that the animals can cause on neighboring land, the spread of brucellosis is just one point of contention. Bison are not easy to contain and can cause costly property damage.

Property is the key word. The tribes are to take full ownership of the bison as their property. Hence, tribal members will be responsible for any harm the animals inflict on the property of others.

That makes this transfer different than repopulating the American West with wild Bison. Wildlife are owned by the state. The state, unlike private owners, is not responsible to compensate for the damage the creatures cause.

Therein lies much of the debate for the reintroduction of species: Who pays and who benefits? It is easy to support an idea that suits your preferences and costs you little. Affected property owners, however, may suffer inordinate costs.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.

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Recycle the Intermountain West

Since 1997, more than 40 million acres of forests across the West have been devastated by pine beetle. The beetle is a natural predator, but historic timber management and climatic conditions have given advantage to the species in current times. The end result is tinderbox forests across the Intermountain region.

Fire is another natural predator in the forest. The increasing kindling in the forest — such as the bug-killed trees — together with growing development in the wildland-urban interface are a dire mix.

Recycling dead and dying trees through harvest and re-use is one method to reduce the problem. Though the timber value of small-diameter wood is low, there are beneficial uses. The wood can be used for firewood, fence posts, and poles, even garden mulch, but these are small players. The real potential is in biomass but existing uncertainties are making investment tenuous.

The inability of the Forest Service to provide a continuous supply of material is troublesome. It is not a lack of biomass material available on National Forest land, nor a question of the benefits from removing the material, rather it is the process of contracting for timber removal that is costly and time consuming. The Forest Service expenditure on procedure to allow timber harvest, even for restoration, is excessive and slow.

Another barrier to investment in biomass is forthcoming regulation on emissions. In spring of last year, the EPA instigated, then suspended, the tailoring rule. The rule would tax emissions from biomass energy production at a rate equal to fossil fuel emissions. The tax would marginalize the profitability of biomass production.

There is a significant difference in the carbon cycle between wood and fossil fuel energies. Wood sequesters carbon from the atmosphere in its living, tree form, then emits it back into the atmosphere when burned for energy. Put simply, it has net zero atmospheric emissions. Fossil fuel moves carbon that is held in the earth and releases it into the atmosphere when burned, causing a net increase in atmospheric carbon.

Recycling small diameter forest products is one answer that could help reduce the risk, and therefore the costs, of catastrophic wildfire in wildland-urban interface, while providing renewable energy. The fight to get there, however, is a battle between enviropreneurs, who see good environmental results from profitable economic activity, and environmental advocacy groups that see profit as evil and exploitive.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.

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A Decade to Determine Nothing

The Clinton administration signed off on the Roadless Rule [PDF] in 2001 to preserve 58.5 million acres of national forest land by preventing road construction, reconstruction, and timber harvest. The lands designated for roadless protection were inventoried in the 1970s to determine their merit for inclusion into the National Wilderness system. Some are now Wilderness; the rest remain under roadless and wilderness study area protection. Over the last decade, the Roadless Rule has been challenged, appealed, promulgated, upheld, replaced, and in the latest court decision on October 21, upheld again.

Of the 58.5 million acres of inventoried roadless, 24.2 prohibited road construction prior to the Roadless Rule. Of the 34.3 million acres remaining open to road construction, roads were built on less than three million acres between 1970 and 2001. Forest Service road building is declining in response to current agency policy, growing controversy, and agency multiple use goals.

The driving force behind the Roadless Rule was to protect the areas from fragmentation and move the lands into hands-off management status. There was, however, no eminent threat of road building and harvest on the land. The alternative would be to allow Forest Service managers, which are trained and educated in forest management, to manage the lands as directed by Forest Service goals and guided (and restricted) by applicable federal legislation and regulation.

Unfortunately, the management of our public lands is dictated by politics and court decisions that are slow at responding to the dynamics of nature. Between federal land regulations, legislation, and litigation, the hands of public land managers are essentially tied, but the Roadless Rule has them hog tied.

Public lands do, after all, belong to us all. By giving every one of us a say (educated on land management or not) in how they are managed we are getting non-active management — by intent, such as directed by the Roadless Rule, and default, through a continual barrage of appeals and litigation. That is exactly what some parties aim to achieve.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.

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State Parks: When in Doubt, Bail ’em Out

Amid the state’s budget crisis last spring, California’s governor threatened to close more than 70 state parks by the spring of 2012 to save the state money. This threat of park closure is a common occurrence in California and other states. Typically, the threat garners enough concern and uproar that funds are found. In fact, never in California Park’s century of existence has a park been closed due to lack of funding.

There are alternatives for state park systems to get out from under the ebb and flow of state finances. The state could lease park operations, for example, as has been demonstrated by private firms such as Recreation Resource Management (RRM). This is the topic of my recent PERC Case Study and a forthcoming RRM conference on public-private partnerships in parks.

The current sentiment to “bail out” troubled entities in our nation, however, is overwhelming. The National Park Service has negotiated with California State Parks to take over operations of at least three of the parks threatened for closure. But the National Park Service is not known for its abundant finances or even its stewardship. Add in the current federal financial situation and it does not seem to be a prime time for federal agencies to take on more responsibility and acreage for management.

Nonetheless, rather than let private entrepreneurs provide the desired recreation opportunities at the same or lower user price and make a dime, park agency bureaucrats prefer to have all taxpayers split the tab. It doesn’t have to work this way.

To read the case study, click here.

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