Friday, August 13, 2010

Mind Your Own Business

The U.S. Forest Service can't even responsibly manage the hundreds of millions of acres in its vast inventory, as anyone knows who has driven through Colorado, or read about the similar devastation sweeping across much of the West. It seems a joke, therefore, to read that the agency is also taking an interest in helping private landowners manage their lands.

If this were merely an effort by the feds to encourage private conservation, I would applaud. Too much emphasis is placed on government-centered conservation (which is an abject failure, as the forest health crisis demonstrates), to the neglect of private-sector alternatives, which frequently have shown much better results.

But nothing is innocent where the federal government is concerned. The deeper agenda is to get taxpayers to "incentivize" -- meaning subsidize -- private conservation efforts (even more than already takes place, through conservation easement tax benefits and the Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program). With federal money comes federal strings, meaning federal control. This threatens to corrupt, and co-opt, the whole idea of private conservation.

Although the feds tout their credentials as preservationists and "protectors," facts "on the ground" tell a more damning story -- one of massive mismanagement of public resources, resulting in a perfect storm of wildfire, disease, insect infestation and benign neglect. Most private forests are much better cared-for than publicly-owned counterparts, because a private owner's personal stake and (yes) profit motive generally make him or her a better steward of the resource than red tape-bound bureaucrats going through the motions.

Public land managers have precious little to lecture private owners about. They would do better to focus on getting their act together.

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