Monday, February 6, 2012

Forest Conservation and the Rise of the 1%

Over here we have debate on the decades-long upsurge in inequality, fueled by the increasing share of income going to the top 1%.  Over there we have the politics of forest prevention, specifically the push by the state of Colorado to weaken roadless protection in order, among other things, to try to suppress forest fires.  What’s the connection?

The main purpose of the roadless areas directive is to keep land available for wilderness designation.  The guiding philosophy of wilderness is that large swaths of forest, desert and other ecosystems need to be left alone to provide the sort of habitat, recreation and research that can exist only in the absence of large-scale human interference.  Keeping out roads is a way of putting a ceiling on that interference.

One aspect of wilderness is permitting a natural fire ecology.  Periodic fires are part of the system, so they should be allowed to burn off excess fuel and permit the rotation of tree species.  (Fire-resistant species thrive in the wake of a fire but are eventually displaced by more susceptible competitors, until another fire begins the cycle again.)  The expectation has been that more of these smaller fires will reduce the number of monster burns.

It hasn’t worked out quite that way.  One reason is climate change, which is slowly redrawing the ecological map of North America.  Some land that used to be forest is destined to be savannah or even drier, and fire, abetted by disease, is often the agent of change.

But something else has happened, much more rapidly: large numbers of the newly rich have chosen to build their second (or nth) homes in remote areas of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and other mountain states.  They like the magnificent vistas and opportunities for recreation provided by public lands, as long as they can own their own private chunk next door.  Naturally, they have the means to fly back and forth, so distance is not a problem .

What is a problem is fire.  Even the small fires envisioned in wilderness philosophy threaten their lovely dachas.  In remarkably bloodless language, the Times summed up this dynamic:
But he [Glenn Casamassa, a US Forest Service supervisor] said the West, and maybe Colorado in particular, has also changed significantly in the intervening years. More people are living near national forests. An outbreak of pine-killing bark beetles that has its epicenter in Colorado and several major fires over those years that roared out to touch the edge of urban life have also changed thinking about intervention in the wild.
And that’s how it is.  If a proposed financial regulation runs afoul of the 1%, out it goes.  If closing a tax loophole brings their rate up to everyone else’s, no go.  And if wilderness gets in the way of their weekend getaways, then this requires “changed thinking” among forest managers.

Plutocracy does have consequences.

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