Environmental Policies Kill – Again!

One of the main themes of my book, The Really Inconvenient Truths, is that misguided environmental policies often lead to humanitarian and environmental disaster. We’ve just seen another example in Australia, where fires have claimed many lives. Distraught survivors are certain they know at least part of the reason why the fires were able to do so:

During question time at a packed community meeting in Arthurs Creek on Melbourne’s northern fringe, Warwick Spooner — whose mother Marilyn and brother Damien perished along with their home in the Strathewen blaze — criticised the Nillumbik council for the limitations it placed on residents wanting the council’s help or permission to clean up around their properties in preparation for the bushfire season. “We’ve lost two people in my family because you dickheads won’t cut trees down,” he said.

It’s called bushfire season for a reason: the bush catches fire. If you want to reduce the effects, you cut back the bush. Policies that stop this are criminally dangerous.

It’s a similar story here in the US. Every year wildfires cause more damage than they should because landowners are restricted from clearing land because of a variety of environmental policies. See here for the disturbing details of one such case from the 1990s. Here’s how I summarize the American approach to wildfires in my book:

When Californian farmers adjacent to the national forests found the kangaroo rat, which graces the Endangered Species List, on their property in the 1990s, they soon found that the rat had destroyed their livelihoods. They were unable to develop their properties in any way without paying a fine for every acre of land they owned, even if they only wished to develop a small portion of it and even if the rat habitat would be unaffected. So they sold their land to property developers, who were easily able to afford the fees. As a result, homes stood next to national forests where previously there had been a buffer zone of farmland.

Meanwhile, the forest service was unable to carry out controlled burns in those forests adjacent to the homes because the underbrush they wished to clear was also home to, you guessed it, the kangaroo rat. Even building a firebreak could get landowners into trouble under the Endangered Species Act. This problem was already apparent. After similar fires in 2003, California’s Blue Ribbon Fire Commission, created by then governor Gray Davis and whose members included Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein as well as state legislators of both parties, concluded that “habitat preservation and environmental protection have often conflicted with sound fire safety planning.”

Liberal environmentalist dogma, however, prevented any action being taken to ensure that sound fire safety planning was enabled, far less that logging companies be allowed to do their bit to protect landowners and the environment. Instead, the contradiction was allowed to stand and when the fires swept through California, the environmental “protections” of the Endangered Species Act led directly to the destruction of the very habitats and animals they were meant to save.

Congressmen should know about these problems and the best available solution. In September 2000, the late and much lamented Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth-Hage of Idaho, chair of the Forests and Forest Health Subcommittee of the House Resources Committee, held hearings on private conservationand the lessons the nation could learn from exemplary private landowners.

Skeet Burris, a South Carolina tree farmer and the American Tree Farm System’s “National Tree Farmer of the Year,” was asked if he practiced controlled burns on his private forestland. He replied that he did because it was necessary to protect the health of his pines and that fire was an integral part of the ecosystem of the southern pine forests. He said he burned about one third of his forest annually.

Chenoweth-Hage asked if, before he began his burns, he waited until there was a huge fuel build-up, a long drought, and an especially hot spell with low humidity and high winds. To some laughter, Burris responded that such a policy would be insane. When he was told that such conditions were characteristic of prescribed burns on the national forests, he explained that he couldn’t afford to take such risks.

His forests and home were all that he owned and that his children and grandchildren would inherit. Furthermore he couldn’t risk his controlled burn destroying his neighbors’ forests and homes because he would personally be held liable. There would be no taxpayers to foot the bill, no transfer to another forest, no early retirement on a taxpayer pension, no other golden parachutes. As the landowner he would personally bear the costs— and that drove his behavior.

As R.J. Smith says: “As long as man is part of nature, we can only have a sound and healthy environment by the exercise of caring stewardship and management. For guidance in that we must now look to the nation’s successful private conservationists.” Liberal environmentalism, on the other hand, has set the
forests ablaze.

Instead of repealing or reforming these regulations, the stimulus bill included $500 million for “wildland fire management.”

Photo credit: AP Photo/Mark Pardew, reproduced under Creative Commons License