Opinion

On Earth Day, think Thoreau

Environmental IssuesEnvironmental PoliticsWildfiresPoliticsState BudgetsEducation

Earth Day is upon us, and with it, several "green" events, including the broadcasting of "Walden: The Ballad of Thoreau" on public television and in schools. This is surprising at a time when government involvement in the environment is all the rage. Henry David Thoreau, who wrote that "government is best which governs not at all," is probably writhing in his grave.

Instead of keeping environmental management at the local level where it is most efficient, we are moving toward more centralization. This trend -- call it green nationalism -- is not new. Theodore Roosevelt's "New Nationalism" platform moved the country away from local control of resources toward bureaucratic management for the masses. Roosevelt set aside 200 million acres of public land and created federal management agencies, such as the Bureau of Reclamation and the Forest Service. These agencies were to "produce the greatest good for the greatest number" -- a noble but impossible goal.

And now President Obama has added more than 2 million acres to today's 600-million-acre federal estate, losing millions of tax dollars a year on land rich in resources because there is no incentive to control management costs or to generate returns on resources such as timber. In the meantime, maintenance falls by the wayside.

Managing resources from Washington means politically directed projects, which often ignore fiscal realities and long-term environmental effects. The Forest Service's Smokey Bear campaign, for example, was created to prevent wildfires and protect lumber for the armed forces. Smokey came to symbolize decades of fire suppression, which unfortunately has resulted in today's catastrophic accumulations of fuel in our forests and exorbitant taxpayer costs to fight wildfires. In 2006, the Forest Service spent $1.5 billion for emergency fire suppression; 45% of its budget for 2008 was committed to fire prevention and suppression.

Green nationalism didn't stop with Roosevelt. President Nixon helped build an unprecedented bureaucratic morass: the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA; the Clean Air and Clean Water acts; the Endangered Species Act; and the list goes on. Environmental improvements continued under these regulations but with a much higher price tag than in the previous decades.

Have regulations gone too far? These have come with bloated bureaucracies spending billions of taxpayer dollars. Environmental scholars such as New York Law School professor David Schoenbrod agree that "the best estimates are that we could have achieved the present level of environmental quality at a quarter of the direct cost." NEPA, for example, created a logjam for the Forest Service by halting timber sales and forcing the agency to spend resources defending itself in court. Meanwhile, millions of acres go unmanaged, exacerbating the already heavy fuel loads.

Why is President Obama feeding the green Goliath that Roosevelt and Nixon helped create? Increasing the Environmental Protection Agency's budget to $10.5 billion in 2010 (a 35% increase) and passing the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, which includes 170 bills to federally shelter public lands and rivers at an estimated start-up cost of $6.4 billion, will only leave the giant begging for more, leaving taxpayers' pockets emptier.

Real change would be moving environmental management closer to home and providing incentives for private investment, both of which can be done without adding to a burgeoning federal debt. Because local communities bear the costs and benefits of resource management decisions, they manage resources in ways that make economic and environmental sense. And nonprofit groups are already using private resources to produce positive environmental results. Land trusts, for example, have conserved acreage equivalent to 16 1/2 times the size of Yellowstone National Park, according to studies. And for-profit firms are making unsubsidized profits by producing new services. As T.J. Rogers, chief executive of SunPower Corp., put it: "I want solar if it makes money, and I don't want solar if it doesn't make money."

Next year marks the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. Let's celebrate the environmental entrepreneurs and the people making decisions on the ground rather than Big Brother from Washington. As Thoreau observed: "The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished, and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way."

Laura E. Huggins, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and at the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Mont., is the author with Terry Anderson of "Greener Than Thou."

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