Government Owned Lands Are On Fire

Firefighter taming California fires

Wildfires are continuing to plague drought-stricken California and federal funding to fight them has dried up like parched El Dorado County farmland, leading critics to say the real problem lies nearly 3,000 miles away, in Washington.

For the year, more than 6 million acres — an area the size of New Jersey — have been burned, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. For the first time, the U.S. Forest Service will spend more than half its budget, some $1.2 billion, on fighting fires on the vast acreage it manages from the nation’s capital.

There is a better way, according to some experts, who believe more private ownership of land would divert the responsibility and cost from taxpayers.

“The federal government has shown itself to be a poor steward of its massive land holdings,” said Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at public policy think tank the CATO Institute. “The issues with Western lands are far too complex and sensitive for far-away politicians and bureaucrats in Washington to be able to solve.” [from 9/17/15]

You think?

It’s not just federal lands; it’s anything and everything the government touches.

The government does not “own” something the way an individual, private company, private charity or for-profit corporation owns something. That’s why these fires are so regular, so prolonged and so disastrous.

“Ownership” implies skin in the game. At the end of the day, bureaucrats, department heads — even presidents and other politicians — come and go. None of them really owns federal lands. “The people” do. But the people are a floating, ultimately unaccountable abstraction.

Any given person in the population of “the people” feels entirely justified in saying, “They’re taking care of that land.” Who is “they”? Ultimately unaccountable bureaucrats? Politicians? Lobbying groups in Washington DC? Would you trust most of these people with the task of keeping an eye on your house, your kids or your pets, sight unseen? Then what makes them so trustworthy when it comes to taking responsibility for the ownership of millions of acres of land?

What makes public “ownership” so beyond question and approach? And what makes private ownership automatically and always bad or wrong?

“Private owners cannot afford to let their forests die of disease, insect infestations or wildfire,” Smith said. “They are on the job 24 hours a day, unlike 9-5 government bureaucrats. If private owners fail they go bankrupt. If Forest Service managers fail, at worst they are transferred to another forest.”

When the government “owns” land, this means that everybody in general — and nobody in particular — is responsible for what happens to the land.

Also notice that when government owns something, political entities carry more weight than would be the case in a private marketplace. Are political entities rational? Almost never.

When government owns or runs a property, the concerns are not economically related, but environmentally related. Environmentalists, by and large, are not rational. By “not rational,” I mean they are not concerned with the particular usefulness of a land or property; they are concerned merely with keeping it for its own sake.

I will not deny that sometimes land is valuable when preserved for its natural beauty or other aesthetic qualities. However, even this constitutes a rational purpose. If your rational purpose is for land to be preserved so it’s pretty, and people may camp or fish there, then you ought to want that property in private hands. Does government have a role to play? Certainly … in upholding the private ownership of that property. If a factory owner or business wishes to put its establishment on that land, it cannot do so — not if the land is owned by a private organization committed (via voluntary donations, a private endowment, or whatever) to keeping that land in its natural state forever.

The most common reason for supporting government ownership of land is the assumption that private entities will “destroy the land, and only government ownership will keep that from happening.”

But if there are enough people willing to donate money to political campaigns to ensure that the government owns as much property in Alaska, California, Colorado or wherever else as possible, then aren’t there enough people willing to pay a private organization to buy up land and maintain it for the reasons they wish to maintain it?

The Sierra Club and other such organizations should not be involved in politics. They should be involved in buying and maintaining private lands they wish to use for the purposes they (and their donors or customers) intend. They will be responsible for maintaining that land 24/7 — not the hapless, always underfunded and never fully accountable (or liable) federal government. The people who value this land will gladly pay for it, rather than everyone in general being forced to pay for it.

Instead, people have put all their faith and hope into government ownership. And look what it gets us. In the case of this unending (years long, 6 million acre) fire caused or aggravated by poor government management, the consequences are obvious. Think of all the consequences we do not know about, which might not be obvious enough to make the headlines but are still just as real, all the same.

In the same vein, think of another monolithic federal government enterprise: public education. That’s an entire sector of what should be in the private economy, instead run almost exclusively by the federal government. None of us expects much from the post office, or the local DMV. Yet we take it for granted that the same government mentality can and should provide a world class education for millions of kids in schools that are owned and paid for by “everybody” but for which nobody — in particular — has any “skin in the game.” And we keep acting shocked, surprised and outraged when billions and billions of more dollars still does not do the job.

“More funding” will not solve the problem for poorly managed government land (or schools either, by the way). With respect to government enterprises, there’s always a need for more funding, and it’s never enough. Privately run companies or entities — ones who could go out of business, or stop existing — have every incentive to ensure that money (or insurance, if available on the market) is set aside to deal with disasters before they get out of control. No, there’s no guarantee they will do this. But there is a guarantee that they will feel the incentive to do so, and will pay the price if they fail to do so.

Not so with the federal government. Think of that as you watch the news of these horrible fires. Sure, the underlying cause of the fires might be drought. But rational ownership results in always improving management and even prevention of problems. It’s not happening in California.

With government — it’s always going to be handled by someone else. And that’s the whole problem.



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