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August 27, 2007

Privatization by Many Means: 'Carbon Offsets' Edition

Professor Bill Willers, emeritus professor of biology, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, claims the American people are being duped (privatized) into losing their public lands — "losing one of the greatest gifts it has to convey to future generations." The latest in a long line of privatization schemes, says Willers, comes in the form of the Forest Service's Carbon Capital Fund Program. Is Willers right? If wrong, where so?

Voluntary 'Carbon Offsetting' as Strategy for Privatizing America's Public Lands, by William Willers, [Common Dreams, Aug 22]: … There is a new twist to the carbon offsetting policy that is particularly insidious in that it is linked with the loss of public ownership of America’s public domain. On July 25, 2007, the U.S. Forest Service announced a "Carbon Capital Fund" that would allow one to "offset" personal CO2 emissions by purchasing vouchers, the cash then being applied to tree planting in national forests. The Service has a website at which a well-intentioned citizen can determine one's annual "carbon footprint", which the Service reports to be, on average, 10.73 metric tons. At $6 per ton, that would indicate an annual individual "investment" in the Fund of $64.38. In other words, the U.S. Forest Service is seeking voluntary donations from citizens for "management" that for generations has been paid for by taxes. (Consider also the irony that the massive clearcutting projects of the Forest Service in recent decades has been linked to global warming http://www.stopclearcuttingcalifornia.org/ ).

But there is even more to this Carbon Capital Fund in that it is being done in concert with a tax-exempt organization, the National Forest Foundation (NFF). Generally, governmental bureaus funded by federal taxes do not solicit private funding as a means of support. But in 1990 the NFF was established by Congress "…to encourage, accept and administer private gifts of money and property for the benefit of the U.S. Forest Service, and to conduct activities that further the purposes and programs of the National Forest System." In fact, NFF president Bill Possiel claims credit for the Carbon Capital Fund: "We came up with the idea because everyone is looking at what they can do in terms of climate change." …

The NFF provides a route for the transfer of funding responsibility away from the public sector. Its Matching Awards Program stipulates "NFF funds awarded through this program can be disbursed only as a match to cash contributions from a non-federal source." Instead of funding the Forest Service directly and completely, Congress has made tax money available only if matched from the private sector. Federal funding of NFF in 2006 totaled nearly four million dollars.

Industry groups support NFF programs not only because donations are tax-deductible but also because they provide a means by which corporations and their public relations organizations can then advertise their concern for the environment. Moreover, because corporations are the truly significant players in "the private sector", they will ultimately be the real benefactors in the privatization of public domain. …

This is part of a long-term strategy to privatize the public's forests, a process implemented during the Reagan Revolution through stepwise defunding of land management agencies in the name of "trimming budgets". The process continues to this day and has forced the U.S. Forest Service to seek funds from the private sector simply to continue on. Nor is the larger plan confined to the national forests alone but includes the federal lands generally — BLM lands, national parks and wildlife refuges as well, collectively nearly a third of the nation. At about the time the NFF was being created, corresponding foundations were established in the form of the National Park Foundation and the Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

The coordinated effort to privatize federal lands has included the "Sagebrush Revolution" of the 1970s, the "Wise Use Movement" of the 80s and 90s, and the more recent "free-market environmentalism" that consists of a network of corporations and conservative foundations and think tanks intent on gaining control of what was intended to belong collectively to "We the People". Right wing economist James Beckwith, writing for the Cato Institute in 1981 with reference to public parks, summed up the strategy bluntly in his call for "…ascending radicalism from reform through volunteerism and privatization of services to the outright abolition of public ownership and transfer of parks to private parties."

… [N]ow there is the Carbon Capital Fund that gets the average citizen into the privatization project by exploiting the altruistic instinct to volunteer in reducing global warming. In being the first governmental entity to sell carbon offsets, the U.S. Forest Service is certainly providing a pilot project that can reveal avenues into other agencies and toward a further privatization of society.

Free market economist Beckwith was a savvy strategizer who understood that too sudden a takeover of public land would trigger citizen reaction, so he proposed that privatization be introduced by degrees, with the most "tentative step" being recruitment of volunteers and later "the contracting out of support services to private firms operating for profit." The public, it seems, is presently like the fabled frog in gradually heated water, unaware that it is losing one of the greatest gifts it has to convey to future generations.

Posted by Dave on August 27, 2007 at 02:54 PM | Permalink


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Posted by: Dave

Privatization means 'Corporate'. Corporate means 'For Profit.'

Dave | Aug 27, 2007 6:51:46 PM

Posted by: Mike Dechter

I don't completely buy the argument that by donating $$$ to offset carbon we are sliding down that slippery slope to privatization. The Forest Service is now no closer to being privatized than it ever was over its 100 yr+ history. The agency was born holding hands with private industry as seen by legislation such as the Pettigrew Amendmentin 1897.

Furthermore, bold steps toward true privatization in recent years have been soundly rejected by Congress and the public. For example, Mark Rey's bid to sell off pieces of National Forest is no longer even discussed and competitive sourcing of FS functions has been severely crippled by Congress.

It's good to pay attention and consider potential unintended consequences of new and 'innovative' programs, but it's also important to consider with context.

Mike Dechter | Aug 28, 2007 12:12:07 PM

Posted by: Dave Iverson

I agree with you Mike that the Forest Service was born "holding hands with private industry." But that was a different era.

The most sinsister aspect of the neoCon movement that now seems to be in eclipse was not the bold agendas to privatize things outright and overnight, agendas that admittedly failed, but the "death by a thousand papercuts" agendas of reducing staffing in gov. agencies, gutting regulatory process requirements, and privatizing in small incremental steps. It is these latter three arenas that will take decades to recover from, if ever recovery is to be made.

Dave Iverson | Aug 29, 2007 8:56:05 AM

Posted by: Mike Dechter

I don't know if privitazation is the utlimate goal, but it does feel a little like someone is trying to kill us with papercuts.

Mike Dechter | Aug 29, 2007 1:17:14 PM

Posted by: Jesse Abrams

Willers seems to be dwelling on the symptoms, while glossing over the cause. The "necessity" of the NFF grant programs and of carbon offest donations - not to mention much of the agency's frustrations with accomplishing any management on the ground - are symptoms of the USFS's paltry and ever-decreasing budget (fire suppression excepted). Expecting the agency to operate effectively under existing legal and socio-political expectations given its current budget is laughable. I'd agree that there are plenty of neocons in this administration and others who'd like nothing better than to privatize the federal estate but carbon offsets aren't the real issue.

Echoing Mike's comment, one sign of how unlikely privatization really is comes in the form of the widespread public opposition to Rey's plan to sell off isolated parcels of the National Forest system. What's more likely is a continuation of the status quo: more money for putting out fires, less money for everything else.

Jesse Abrams | Aug 30, 2007 8:45:26 PM

Posted by: erin uloth

i think there are both insidious ways and direct ways to lead down the "slippery slope". insidious ways include cutting the budget until you have an organization with almost no capacity unless outside funds come in to prop it up. direct ways include the, let's sell some public land to make up for temporary budget constraints approach. it's clear that the latter doesn't work, but the slower, more insidious approach is garnering NO attention by anyone except for those of us in the organization.

along these lines, there were no advocates lobbying on behalf of the forest service at the budget hearings this year. there were folks for the parks, of course, and look at that-- the parks budget went up again. we don't have any friends. i would argue that our extensive (and growing) partnership network might serve us better in the long term by lobbying to Congress to fund the organization at an appropriate level, instead of contributing funds and in-kind work to get us through projects in the short term.

erin uloth | Sep 5, 2007 11:38:38 AM

Posted by: Warren Ririe

Carbon offsets - a step towards privatization? I don't know. What I do believe is that it is another symptom of an Agency who has lost its purpose; its vision. Implementing a token, trendy program for resolving geological cycles of global temperature change is a good example of FS inability to understand who we are and our fear of sincerely looking for an answer.

Warren Ririe | Sep 6, 2007 3:08:41 PM

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