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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of July 10 - 16, 2002

Opinion Columns

Fighting forest fires 
on Wall Street

Commentary by DICK DORWORTH

If the Wall Street Journal can be believed, the solution to catastrophic fires is simple: follow the lead of private timber companies. Thatís unbelievable.

A recent (June 21) Wall Street Journal editorial offered a simple minded, and, if the Journal can be believed, simple solution to the catastrophic fires that have been, are, and will continue scorching the west. The editorial titled "The Fire This Time" (James Baldwin would have loved the irony that the age of irony is not dead) suggests that "One solution would be to follow the lead of private timber companies, whose forests donít tend to suffer such catastrophic fires. Their trees are an investment; they canít afford to let them burn. Americans should feel the same way about theirs."

Like many perspectives found in the Journal, this one reduces the complexity of life into terms of capitalist economic theory. But the universe is infinitely more complex (and rich) than any system of theoretical or practical economics, thank the trees and stars, undammed (undamned?) rivers and uncollared bears and wolves and, of course, wilderness, especially forests, even burning ones. A tree is no more an investment than a tree farm is a forest; and the Journal using the term "private timber companies" as a manifestation of environmental, social and financial responsibility is shallow thinking and bad journalism, even within the loose parameters allowed editorial comment. A forest is a living entity and a natural resource, not an investment, and the private ownership of natural resources always benefits only a few at the expense of the many. The public always loses.

An isolated quote, blown up and inserted near the top of the page, reads: "Thereís a reason forests on private land donít burn down." That was enough to make me want to read the piece. I wanted to know what that reason was. Alas, not only was the reason not offered, the quote isnít in the body of the story, though the clear implication is that private ownership of public lands will, in itself, solve the problem of forest fires. Replace Smokey the Bear with Boise Cascade or Weyerhauser. That certainly should take care of Americaís forests for all time.

While I often disagree with what I find in the Wall Street Journal, its standards of journalistic integrity are frequently excellent, and I sometimes use those disagreements to scrutinize my own perspective and ideas. I have learned a lot from the turgid prose and conservative dogma found in the pages of this daily sermon for those whose daily bread is earned from the sweat of their stock portfolios and clever real estate investments. It is disappointing and disturbing to see the Journal downgrade to National Enquirer standards of journalism, resorting to such a cheap, unsubstantiated (and unsubstantial) reductionism clichť as "Thereís a reason forests on private land donít burn down." And, "Before the Clinton Administration limited timber sales, U.S. Forests helped pay for their own upkeep. Selective logging cleaned up grounds and paid for staff, forestry stations, cleanup and roads."

Neither the selective logging nor more common clear cut logging practices of the private timber companies in the public forests of America have ever paid for themselves. It is not the forests, which, after all, were here many thousands of years before human beings, that are on the public dole and need to pay for their own upkeep. And what "grounds" have selective logging by private logging companies ever cleaned up? Whoever wrote that has either never seen the aftermath of clear cutting or has the conscience of a shark. And the staff, forestry stations, cleanup and roads necessary to service private logging enterprises on public lands have always cost the American taxpayer far, far more than those companies ever paid back. It is, contrary to the Wall Street Journalís assertion, the private logging companies that need to pay for their own upkeep on Americaís forests, not the forests. And they have never done so.

One can easily picture a well-fed corporate executive of a private timber company in his office, cigar in hand, ashes carefully tapped into an ivory ash tray from the endangered elephants of Africa on top of a teak desk from the decimated forests of Malaysia, dictating a press release to be distributed to the sycophants who do his public relations. "Thereís a reason forests on private land donít burn down. Flesh it out. Make sure it gets to the usual sources."

Itís sad to see such nonsense in the Journal, which simplistically lays the blame for the summerís fires on the Clinton administration, "green groups blocking timber sales at every turn," "30 years of environmental regulation," and bad forest management at the hands of the U.S. Forest Service. Nowhere does it answer the question: why donít forests on private lands burn down? Nor does it offer any statistics, studies, scholarship or any kind of proof or even justification for such a bizarre assertion. Is it true? I donít know, though I doubt it. Apparently, the Wall Street Journal doesnít know either.

Nor does the Journal appear to know, or at least acknowledge, the connection between todayís forest fires and several years of drought in the West. While the editorial puts the blame for the forest fires on the previous administration, environmentalists and what it calls "a bourgeois bohemian plan to return forests to their Ďnaturalí state," it makes no mention of the catastrophic influence of global warming on the state of the forests of western America and the rest of the world. It does not make the connection between the drought of recent years and global warming, for that requires viewing the world as something more (and more complex) than an economic opportunity. Nor does the Journal mention the major role of Americaís private businesses in contributing to global warming. Nor does it point out the Bush Administrationís ostrich-like posture in addressing global warming.

If the Wall Street Journal can be believed, the solution to catastrophic fires is simple: follow the lead of private timber companies. Thatís unbelievable.


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