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Central Planning and the Wallow Fire

  • Paul Schwennesen
  • Prometheus, mankind’s great advocate and insubordinate pilferer of flame, must be perplexed by the goings-on in fire-riven Arizona. The towering columns of smoke have gone, but the forest conflagration has left behind half a million charred acres and more than a few smoldering resentments. Primary among these resentments is a question over management of public forest resources: who should decide how we avoid or at least mitigate such a calamity in the future? It is of course ironic; Marx claimed Prometheus as the figurehead of the communal mystique, and no asset is more communally owned than America’s western forests. Not surprisingly, these forests are a prime example of the tragic consequences of collective ownership and central management.

    In addition to our famed cactus down south, Arizona harbors around seven billion cubic feet of live timber and the world’s largest stand of ponderosa pine. The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest lies on 2.63 million acres of this stand. Each year, solar energy and carbon are converted into nearly twenty-four million cubic feet of timber on national forest land. This resource is impressive and aesthetic, drawing sun-scorched tourists by the busload.

    It also draws “managers” by the score. Aldo Leopold embarked on his first Forest Service assignment here in 1909, just a few miles from Bear Wallow. Ever since, the forest has been managed in the public domain by well-educated and better-intentioned technocrats charged with maximizing the public good. Under a complicated rubric of “multi-use,” the Forest Service attempts to harvest the sustainable yield of the resource (it is, after all, under the Department of Agriculture). Timber, livestock grazing, and hunting permits are just a few of the “extractive” uses they are charged with upholding. Habitat protection, endangered species management, and increasing recreational demands are a large and growing slice of the resource allocation pie.

    The extraordinarily difficult job of balancing these competing demands is precisely the sort of thing that bureaucracies are bad at handling. As Malcolm Gladwell notes, these kinds of complex problems are not puzzles (which more information and better education can help solve), but mysteries (in which more information and better education tends to confuse). In the late-1980s, for instance, timber harvesting off national forest land came to a nearly complete halt as a result of court injunctions precipitated in the Pacific Northwest. Litigation by environmentally conscious lobbying groups, specifically over concerns of habitat destruction for endangered species, made large-scale timber harvest a thing of the past. Grazing permits likewise encountered a dramatic decline for similar reasons. Combined with an aggressive thirty-year campaign of actively putting out all fires (is there any more iconic mascot than Smoky the Bear?), these actions led predictably to a dramatic increase in forest-density and ground cover.

    Forest density and ground cover is called “habitat” by the green contingent, “fuel-load” by their brown compatriots. And, of course, there is an element of truth in each view, often masking personal preferences and economic agendas. But the point is this: the kind of see-sawing policy shifts which encouraged dramatic, perhaps unsustainable, increases in extractive uses in the early 1980s was followed by dramatic, perhaps unconscionable, reductions in these uses a decade later. These market-insulated policy shifts were not based on good information (which markets are extraordinarily good at projecting), but on politics and the relative power of lobbying those in control. The short-term increases in forest habitat resulting from reduced extraction charged the pan for the tremendous blazes we have encountered in the past decade.

    This past May, one of the sun-scorched tourists started a blaze that subsequently burned more acreage than any other single event in state history. Two and a half billion board feet of timber are estimated to have gone up in a whiff of carbon and particulate pollution this summer. Five hundred nineteen thousand, three hundred and nineteen acres of prime habitat, prime camping, prime hunting, and prime timber disappeared in an ecological blink of an eye. Before us lie the smoking remnants of command-and-control planning gone predictably awry.

    “Well,” you say, “forests burn periodically, it’s a natural and proper consequence of growth.” If only it were that simple. Fire is indeed a natural ecological force, particularly in the brittle ecosystems of the semi-arid west. But size matters. Half-million acre infernos are almost certainly not typical of the “natural” order of things.  

    The Indians Get it Right

    Like so many other examples of centralized versus diffuse planning at work (East and West Germany, North and South Korea, etc.), we have been blessed with a side-by-side experiment on the ground. The Wallow fire burned deeply into Forest Service-managed lands, but practically stopped at the borders of the San Carlos Apache reservation. Comparable forest ecology and identical terrain, yet the flames simply did not do to Indian lands what they did to public lands. Why not?

    In 2002, after a devastating fire that ravaged public and Indian-lands alike, the Apache reservation began a concerted campaign of timber harvest, forest-thinning, and prescribed burning. A preventive blaze was set one year ago just west of where the Wallow Fire ignited and tribal workers completed major fuel-reduction campaigns along the reservation border. Because of that, even flames that crossed into Apache lands burned mostly along the ground, with minimal damage to the environment.

    Prevailing winds (blowing away from the reservation) certainly played a critical role, but would anyone really care to accept a counterfactual bet on the outcome of the fire had the winds been blowing onto the reservation? In the direction of the national forest lay a dense stand containing twenty-five years of accumulated fuels, in the other lay a well managed, fully utilized, carefully thinned forest. Central planners with access to the finest scientific tools and incalculably large budgets were bested by relatively poor natives who knew and understood their lands, and had no fear of vigorously using their resources. Sounds a bit familiar, come to think of it…

    Oddly enough, wildlife apparently picks winners too. Elk, spotted owl, mule deer, and any number of less charismatic species vote with their feet (and wings), consistently spoiling the expectations of conservationists who think they ought to live in the more “hands-off, pristine” environments. The San Carlos Apache reservation is known for harboring the world’s finest trophy elk, an indicator of both ecological and economic health (they routinely charge outsiders $25,000 for the privilege of taking the fruits of their hard-earned management success).

    The land resources owned and managed by the Apache tribe is of course communally managed as well, but to a far lesser extent than that of national public lands managed by a central bureaucracy. The number of competing demands is smaller, the boundaries to access clearer and more defined. The tragedy of the commons simply isn’t as tragic.

    The Fatal Conceit

    I am not a trained ecologist and probably cannot speak very intelligently to the specific interplay of fire-adapted species, soil fungus communities, or basal/canopy cover effects. But I do make my living upon the living land, and have a healthy respect for nature’s resilience. It is part of my land ethos that nature ought not be underestimated or, more importantly, patronized. My faith lies not in allowing nature a “free hand” for such a thing does not exist. Instead, I see our species as a significant part of the complex set of forces that creates the dynamic equilibrium of any natural system at any given moment. I have my preferences, as does any other species. I might prefer to see many areas of open meadow instead of blackened denuded mountaintops; a squirrel might prefer an oak monoculture, and a bear might prefer a colossal berry patch punctuated with Park Service trash cans…

    In effect, I see ecosystems as markets, a playing field for the competing demands over scarce resources. The recent fires represent the unanticipated outcome of the triumph of one set of preferences (dense forest habitat) over another. In the long run I have no deep concerns over the eventual reestablishment of an equilibrium that meets, more or less, with my values, but as an intuitive economist, I sigh over the waste. How many millions, even billions of dollars could have been spent improving lives instead of evaporating into the atmosphere? Is it inherently unnatural to insert our extractive acumen in place of the natural low-grade fires that would have occurred in our absence? Could we have not built homes, fueled biomass reactors, or funded research with the concentrated energy locked away in a half million acres of standing timber? Could not a judicious use of the resource supplanted what we now believe is a beneficial periodic tissue removal?

    Instead, we have collectively decided that west of the 100th meridian, forest resources are to be held in common, managed by central directorship.


    Management, I have come to understand, is the act of physically manifesting values. This may be too broad or loose a definition for some, but for me it captures all the vagaries of a term too often used without clarity. “Good” management represents physical attempts to manifest the particular value system of the day, and “bad” management is an attempt to manifest what one does not wish to see. Of course, since values are hardly monolithic, this poses a dilemma:  if value preferences are highly personal, then no objective definition of “good” management can ever be reached.

    This is a powerful argument for decentralized management–many empowered actors managing toward their own set of value preferences. In the aggregate, what spontaneously appears is a form of order, the physical expression of what constitutes the prevailing values of the day. This is why, within the decentralized management structure of the eastern seaboard created by mostly private property, cutting down forests and creating farmland was “good” management in the 17th century, and why replacing farmland with forests is “good” management in the 21st. This is why, as Leopold described it, the last grizzly bear in Escudilla (scene of the Wallow fire) was shot by a government trapper under the guise of good management, and why we all sigh sorrowfully at the thought today.

    No such collective aggregation of values is possible in the forests of the West, except by proxy. Only one entity, the United States Forest Service, holds management control. Many thousands of interested parties exert influence over this control, to be sure, but ultimately whatever is deemed “good” management is applied wholesale over millions and millions of acres. If, as is inevitable, slight changes in preferences or slight adjustments in knowledge occur, it takes decades to be enacted as changes in management on the ground.

    Private Forests?

    This is a bridge far too far for many, but I cannot help but recommend significant privatization of western forestlands. By allowing management to diffuse to individual actors, it is clear that land management will more neatly align with today’s set of values. Ecologically, economically, culturally, and aesthetically, the landscape will blossom into what the majority of us see as “good land.” If one landowner decides that thick timber is important to him, then that judgment is confined to a small area. When it burns, it burns up his aspirations and his property value and he is free to reassess his philosophy. If another decides to clear-cut his allotment and it subsequently erodes away, he has likewise hurt himself and his investment and may very well have to pay restitution to downstream owners to whose streams he fouls. Either way, those dramatically opposing management decisions represent just the tail ends of a neat distribution, a bell curve of “goodness.” What lies in the middle is the majority of managers, and that majority will inevitably represent what most people wish to have done upon the land.

    As it stands now, management and results are wholly separated on public forests. The Forest Service can dodge responsibility, rightfully citing anti-timber litigation. The polluted streams, destroyed homes, and wasted assets are all accounted on the balance sheet as “destroyed by Act of God,” even though the responsibility was clearly in our realm. The only way to adequately and effectively tie management decisions to value systems is by allowing individuals to personally benefit or personally pay for their activity. In short, the resource must be owned privately, not collectively.


    Prometheus, giver of fire, marches under the banner of central planning and communitarianism. One of our nation’s greatest resources, its large western forests, is given over to the care of government. You would think this would represent a powerful combination, a demonstration of the efficacy of top-down thinking and technocratic control. Instead, what we see is a dramatic example of good intentions disappearing in a billowing cloud of smoke and flame.

    If Prometheus, stepping away from his daily torment, could see what tragic consequences this philosophy has for the land we depend on, he might choose to march under different colors.

    Written By
    • Paul Schwennesen

      Paul Schwennesen is a southern Arizona rancher, director of the Agrarian Freedom Project, and 2020 PERC Lone Mountain Fellow. He is also an alum of PERC’s Enviropreneur Institute.

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