Given this, it comes as no surprise that what's especially disquieting to many locals is a growing list of threats to the federal lands themselves. "Though a region of such natural beauty can never become the worthless desert described by Daniel Webster," declared Time magazine in 1980, "it can become so despoiled that life there is no longer very special." Today such threats are coming not from that small, militant gaggle of zealots who've been showing up regular as knapweed for 75 years, pushing to give the national forests back to the states, ignoring altogether the fact that a key condition of statehood was to forgo any claim to federal lands. Such true believers, after all, claim only a small congregation (though one especially well funded by industry groups, including some with imaginative names like Environmentalists for Jobs, organized in 1990 by the president of the Chicago Mining Corporation). Far more insidious is the steady dismantling of conservation measures some 50 years in the making-efforts now being led by the government itself, and for the most part outside public scrutiny. Intoxicated by the work of economists like Milton Friedman, whose religious-style belief in laissez-faire capitalism was a major political force in the 1980s, a powerful group of modern politicos is now intent on applying free-market principles to national forests and Bureau of Land Management reserves across the length and breadth of the Rockies. According to this vision-simple, elegant, and to some, utterly terrifying-the best use of any natural resource is what the highest bidder will pay for it. If recreation or wildlife cannot squeeze from the land as many dollars as mining or logging can, then they shouldn't be a management priority. Much of the ground for such thought was established in the 1970s, when there was a flurry of research by various universities to put dollar values on every aspect of the out-of-doors; a day in the wilderness, for example, was determined in one report to carry roughly the same value as the price of a movie ticket. The problem with such economic models-and, at the same time, what to many is most appealing about them-is their utter lack of dimension. The profit margins of many timber projects dry up altogether when you factor in massive government subsidies to build the necessary roads. Coal-bed methane wells are a bonanza only if you neglect to figure in the harm to surrounding ranches and communities from potential damage to the aquifers.
Yet such projects may soon overwhelm the Rockies-arriving if not through the front door, then through the back. The recently launched Healthy Forests Initiative, for example, proposed to streamline certain logging projects-those meant to reduce the threat of wildfire-by restricting public and judicial input. Only then, promise those championing the legislation, can we finally overcome the massive "analysis paralysis" being caused by environmentalists, who they claim routinely tie up essential fuel reduction programs[culling of timber to purportedly prevent wildfire] by appealing them in court. In truth, according to the Government Accounting Office, of more than 1,600 fuel reduction programs launched in 2001 and 2002, less than 2 percent failed to start on time. The fact that the government has no money to carry out such projects is to the free-market crowd a golden opportunity. Instead of using Forest Service crews, the Healthy Forest Initiative will outsource the work to private contractors. The only problem is that in order to be even marginally worthwhile to a contractor, a typical logging operation has to bring in substantially more profit than can be obtained from harvesting the kinds of relatively young, highly flammable trees that pose the highest fire risk. The solution will be to allow loggers to also take larger, more fire-resistant trees, which of course have far more commercial value. Thus in 20 or 30 years we may well have thousands of acres of even-aged timber stands, much of it lodgepole pine, which, beyond providing only marginal wildlife habitat, is arguable the most flammable forest of them all.