CHARTER FORESTS: PRIVATIZING THE PUBLIC DOMAIN

By Bill Willers

The Bush Administration proposes establishing „charter forests” by transferring authority of some national forests from the U.S. Forest Service to local „trusts” consisting largely of „user groups.” This, according to Mark Rey, would reduce management costs. Rey, a former timber industry lobbyist, is Undersecretary of Agriculture in charge of the national forests.

This Charter Forest Plan to „decentralize” management harks back to the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s, an organized attempt by industry and local governments to wrest control of public lands from the federal government. Public domain, most of it in the West, makes up a third of the country and includes national parks, national forests and wilderness areas. Sagebrush rebel James Watt became Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior and later a mentor to Gale Norton, the present Interior Secretary.

The Sagebrush Rebellion failed to establish a legal claim that public domain belongs to the states, but from it there grew the „Wise Use Movement” which established regional groups opposed to „big government” and „environmental extremists.”

Now, Wise Use is yielding to a „free-market envi- ronmentalism” formulated by think tank-based libertarian economists. Pure market demand, they argue, should determine how public lands are used. Again, local authority is a key piece of the strategy to transfer control of the people’s lands from the larger government to industrial interests.

The country already has an example of local control of public lands by a dominant industry. In 1934, the immense BLM lands of the West were divided into „grazing allotments” to be overseen by local advisory boards consisting of the very livestock operators holding the grazing permits. The result has been disastrous to native life forms and watersheds, even as US citizens who actually own the land subsidize the livestock industry which presently pays rent at about 1/9th of market.

Once grazing allotments were associated with specific permit holders for several decades, permit holders thought of the land as their own, even though the only thing rented were grazing rights. Such perception by a politically powerful local force translates into a near de facto ownership. Ranches now are routinely sold as if leased federal land is a permanent attachment.

The Charter Forest Plan is similar, and end results would be too. If industries gain management rights over the nation’s forests, corporate lawyers and public relations firms will inflate ownership aspects and then massage the „sanctity of private property” principle to industrial advantage.

A free-marketeer and Charter Forest advocate from the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment („FREE”) minced no words: „National Forest Trusts would be charged to manage for the land’s highest values.” „Highest value” here refers to cash value.

Regarding the suggestion that only a national forest or two will become charter forests, there is also a lesson. Recreation Fee Demonstration („Fee Demo”) requires citizens to pay merely to park and hike on taxpayer-supported federal land. Fee Demo began as a temporary demonstration, then it was extended. Now, making it permanent is part of the Bush Administration’s budget – situations that an informed public would not tolerate if introduced suddenly are successful if advanced stepwise.

Likewise, the Charter Forest Plan, while beginning with a forest or two, would surely grow in time to cover the national forest system. We are like the frog that will remain in a pan of water if the temperature is raised but slowly, and thus we get cooked.

The Charter Forest Plan transforms nature into commodity. The people’s forests would become mere production units. Producing what? Why, whatever yields the most money – whether trees, minerals, game, jeep trails or family fun operations. After generations of supporting these forests with federal taxes, citizens would quickly become mere customers seeing price tags on every use.

With its frank invitation for „the creative efforts of environmental entrepreneurs,” the Charter Forest Plan sets the stage for a transfer of control of the people’s forests from the larger representative government to private industry.

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