Forests and Trees

November 06, 2003

Gary Jones at Muck and Mystery has a very good article about forest conservation and a followup about the Salton Sea. His immediate target is poorly informed, highly emotional environmentalists. His secondary target, and what he sees as the underlying cause of poor environmental decision making, is that people are being insulated from the consequences of their actions.

Jones argues that Eastern and Western forests have different trees and growth cycles, that national fire and forest management strategies were developed and sold for Eastern forests, and that these policies are widely destructive when applied to Western forests. Using California as his example, he praises state-level forest management that tries to reduce ground litter, thin trees, and prevent conditions from leading to over-growth and fireboxes while condemning federal forest management that kills fires while letting forests choke and kill themselves. Jones blames the poor choice of federal policy on several things: the myth of forest destruction shown by Bambi and Smokey Bear, the prevalence of Eastern attitudes in national policy making, and a ferocious yet uninformed campaign of vilification by ultra-conservationists who refuse to see any policy that might look like foresting.

Jones argues this at greater length and with more eloquence than I can summarize here. His point, something he continues in today's post about the Salton Sea, is that environmental management decisions need to be made from the perspective of the hundred-year cycle, not the twenty year cycle or the one year cycle. In the short term, it makes a lot of sense to build a house in the foothills, try to refill a temporary lake in the Salton basin.

I want to move beyond his post and look at some of the barriers to better decision making. Jones focuses his ire in the forest article on environmentalists who respond with knee-jerk vitriol any time a forest products company gets near a forest. He argues that this vitriol makes it impossible to build a sustainable plan. He does not look at where the vitriol comes from.

For many years we have been told, correctly to the best of my knowledge, that American forest management has been a federally subsidized boondoggle for the firms with national connections who pull wood from the forests for below cost, break up ecosystems, and clear-cut every chance they get. From the environmentalist perspective, forest service companies have shown that they can not be trusted. They respond with vitriol to the State level practices that Jones admires because these practices are based on partnerships between state regulatory agencies and what they see as untrustworthy companies. These partnerships are necessary because forest management is expensive, and if a tree has to be culled it makes more sense to sell it than to cut it and let it rot.

There is a second problem with forests and fires. People keep moving into fire zones and building houses. Stereotypically these are new luxury houses, McMansions, and they are inhabited by people who tend to vote against all taxation and for a smaller state. These people then move into unstable terrain and, when fire comes, demand expensive state protection for their private property.

There is a potential way to link these two problems. It is a political problem, perhaps an insurmountable political problem. Most people, it is my gut sense, are very willing to pay for something if they think they are getting a good value for their money. They do not like to pay taxes, in many cases, because they feel that they are not getting that value. This is generally a poor perception, but it is a politically powerful perception.

Basic principles of fairness suggest that people who live in fire zones should pay the costs of protecting their property. Normally we let the insurance system handle those costs - earthquake insurance is cheap in Boston, expensive in San Francisco. In certain situations any event that would lead to one claim would lead to thousands of claims, defeating the insurance purpose of spreading losses around, and the government steps in. It is my understanding that people who live in California canyons have trouble getting fire assistance.

In economic terms, these people are being free riders on the state. Their choice of where to settle adds significant costs to fire regulation and fire fighting, costs over and above the usual infrastructure costs associated with sprawl. These costs are currently being covered through state emergency appropriations. In other words, all of us taxpayers are subsidizing millionaires in California.

The trick would be to somehow use market pricing to reflect the total social costs of having people settle in fire zones. Imagine, if you will, the fire zone tax - a special property tax levied on all construction, old and new, in high-risk fire regions. The proceeds of that tax would then be earmarked for forest management - clearing dead wood, trimming overly dense trees, building firebreaks and then holding contained burns, and insuring against the statistical certainty that some of those controlled burns will get out of control.

The way to sell it is that folks who live in fire zones get extra ordinary fire protection services, and they should pay for what they get. No welfare millionaires! (1)

It will be a hard sell. Somehow we have come to think of money gone in taxes as money lost forever. It is taken from us and we imagine that we have no control over what happens to it - it just vanishes into the black hole marked Government. And yet, at the same time, we think of money and services received through governmental channels as free money. It comes from nowhere, or from a black box, we want as much of it as we can get. Alabama's governor, a Republican, just tried to make the more taxes for more services argument, and saw his proposals go down in a referendum.

Many Democrats are looking for a platform. Most Americans agree with appeals to fairness and equity. We want to do the right thing, we just have trouble telling what the right thing is through our haze of self-interest and the obscuring clouds of spin-laden dust thrown off by the political system. Much environmental policy is based on the simple notion that when a person engages in an activity where they can shift the costs to everyone else, that activity will be more profitable for them but bad for society. Externalities are crucial. The trick is to use regulation to capture and work with those externalities in a way that is: 1, Fair 2, Will not crush individual or corporate initiative, 3, Based on long-term environmental science rather than short term sound bites.

Despite my own inherent democratic (small d) bias, the answer I am coming to here is very Progressive. The answer seems to be to depoliticize some of these decisions and turn them over to a board of experts. The trick is to choose experts who will achieve the policy goals, maintain public trust, and preserve accountability. For the details of that, I will have to turn to the historians of the modern political process.

(1). This is a sample slogan. It would inevitably be met with stories about working people living out a bit, just getting by, and being made homeless by the new taxes. Any new taxation is a form of taking, it lowers the value of the property for any subsequent purchaser. One of the implementation tricks will be to impose the new taxes in a way that does not cause sudden shifts in property values.

Posted by Red Ted at November 6, 2003 09:07 AM | TrackBack