If A Tree Falls, Does A Voter Make A Sound?

9 October 2003

By Stentor Danielson

The ever-growing federal budget deficit is a cause for worry, but consider these silver linings. President Clinton was able to balance his budgets, suggesting that such a feat is possible. The public knows, and cares, about the fiscal solvency of the government, and may use the ballot box to call the Bush administration to account. Finally, we have publicly available data on just how much the government is receiving and spending.

Those pluses may not seem like much, but they're more than can be said for the government's longstanding mismanagement of America's public lands. The wretched accounting there pays no heed to which party is in charge, and elicits little public outrage. Indeed, we barely know the real scale of the problem.

Start with timber sales in national forests. The Forest Service, like many private landowners, allows logging companies to harvest from its land. When done responsibly, there's no problem with making use of the nation's timber. Unfortunately, responsible forestry seems beyond the grasp of our current government and corporate decision-makers. We can even set aside the question of environmental impacts -- the tendency of current shortsighted logging practices to make forests susceptible to accelerated erosion and catastrophic wildfires. Let's just take a look at the Forest Service's budgets.

Logging on public lands is subsidized by American taxpayers. Timber companies are able to escape the discipline of the market -- which demands that a business's costs not exceed its revenue -- by shifting some of its costs onto the government. This cost-shifting occurs mostly through road construction. The government builds the roads that loggers need to get into the forest. In theory, these costs would be recouped by the price that the loggers pay for the timber. Yet the Forest Service consistently underprices its timber, losing money on the deal. The difference between the cost of building the roads and the revenue from the sale is a big fat subsidy to the timber company. Taxpayers for Common Sense estimates that the government lost $78 million on timber sales between 1998 and 2001.

It's tough to say exactly how poorly the Forest Service is managing our forests, because it can't even balance its checkbook. The agency has failed to account for billions of dollars in assets. As long ago as the 1970s, the problem was visible, prompting the creation of the Timber Sale Program Information Reporting System (TSPIRS). The 1998 TSPIRS report calculated that timber sales lost $126 million. That was the last TSPIRS report, leaving us with little direct data on how well our public forests have been managed over the past five years.

Straightening out the books would cut down on logging. Even at discounted prices, most timber sales are still not competitive, suggesting that timber companies wouldn't find it worth their while to cut many forests if they had to bear the full cost of the operation. When a timber sale did go ahead, moreover, we could be sure that the burdens would fall on the parties involved -- timber companies and their customers.

The mother of all land mismanagement programs is the Native American trust fund. 115 years ago, the federal government decided that Native American tribes weren't competent to manage their own lands, and so those lands were placed under the control of the government. The government solemnly promised that revenues from the use of those lands for timber harvesting, grazing, and so forth, would go into a trust fund that would pay dividends to tribe members. The weather in Hades remained warm and sunny, so the American government saw no reason to actually keep a promise it made to Native Americans. While trust lands continue to be used, most of the money disappears before it reaches any of the supposed beneficiaries.

In 1996, four Native Americans took their complaint to the courts. They allege that the government owes $137 billion in trust fund money to some 300,000 people. The government counters that it just doesn't know how much money it may or may not owe. Accounting at the Bureau of Indian Affairs is just that bad.

The case is still not settled, and the government seems no closer to figuring out its finances. I can only imagine the frustration felt by U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth, who has repeatedly issued ultimatums and held officials in contempt of court -- including Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton -- all to no avail. On the trust fund issue, the government seems to have come little farther than notorious Indian-fighter Andrew Jackson. After Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall held that the Cherokees were entitled by treaty to land that white settlers wanted for gold prospecting, then-President Jackson is said to have retorted: "John Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it."

Americans would be justified in being skeptical of the government's ability to manage its land. Unfortunately, the scandal of poor accounting is likely to elicit little public outrage, and hence little pressure for change. Maybe this is why neither the Clinton nor Bush administrations were willing to throw any large stones at companies like Enron -- they knew that they lived in a glass house.

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