giving away the store

Why do we have to be eternally blind to the experience, whether successful or disastrous, of other nations or societies? Because we're so damned provincial--or foolishly convinced we're always right.

The germans, who love the forest perhaps more than any people, have long worked with a system which evolved over at least a millenium. There may be problems with the monoculture which often accompanies strict forest management, but the aesthetic and the discipline is striking. If you walk into a German forest, more often than not you will see trees, but no underbrush, no fallen trunks, no rotten stumps. It's been cleared down below. It all looks tailored. It is.

I [Gilgamesh] would conquer in the Cedar Forest.... I will set my hand to it and will chop down the Cedar.

--Epic of Gilgamesh

The visual sign of the well-managed forest, in Germany and in the many settings where German scientific forestry took hold, came to be the regularity and neatness of its appearance. Forests might be inspected in much the same way as a commanding officer might review his troops on parade, and woe to the forest guard whose "beat" was not sufficiently trim or "dressed." This aboveground order required that underbrush be removed and that fallen trees and branches be gathered and hauled off.
Our own studies today support the german practice as a fire deterrent.
Scientists for and against thinning the forest at large say it has to be carried out according to a prescription or it may cause serious ecological problems. Just small fuels on the ground and trees up to three or four inches in diameter should be removed instead of larger trees, which are more fire-resistant.
Researchers report further that "Timber harvest, through its effects on forest structure, local microclimate and fuels accumulation, has increased fire severity more than any other recent activity," and that includes fire suppression. The American forest looks like a mess (ok, an attractive, if impenetrable, mess), and its undergrowth, potentially useful for fuel, fill or other purposes, rots away (unless it ignites first). It would be nice if we could find a way to reduce the scale of destructive forest fires without giving away the store.

Bush wants to sell to big corporations the right to log mature trees which are not a fire danger to populated areas, in return for clearing out the stuff that should be removed. The clearing responsibility is not likely to be policed and logging and clearing operations should be treated as separate issues. The Shrub is using the recent spate of destructive fires as an excuse to further enrich his class.

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?