Round up the usual suspects! George W. Bush’s new”Healthy Forests” plan reads like a parody of his administration’sstandard operating procedure. You see, environmentalists cause forest fires, andthose nice corporations will solve the problem if we get out of their way. AmI being too harsh? No, actually it’s even worse than it seems. “HealthyForests” isn’t just about scrapping environmental protection; it’s alsoabout expanding corporate welfare. Everyoneagrees that the forests’ prime evil is a well-meaning but counterproductive bearnamed Smokey. Generations of fire suppression have led to a dangerousaccumulation of highly flammable small trees and underbrush. And in some – notall – of the national forests it’s too late simply to reverse the policy; thanksto growing population and urban sprawl, some forests are too close to built-upareas to be allowed to burn. Clearly,some of the excess fuel in some of the nation’s forests should be removed. Buthow? Mr. Bush asserts that there is a free lunch: allowing more logging thatthins out the national forests will both yield valuable resources and reducefire risks. But it turns out that the stuff that needs to be removed -small trees and bushes, in areas close to habitation – is of little commercialvalue. The good stuff, from the industry’s point of view, consists of large,mature trees – the kind of trees that usually survive forest fires – which areoften far from inhabited areas. Sothe administration proposes to make deals with logging companies: in return forclearing out the stuff that should be removed, they will be granted the right totake out other stuff that probably shouldn’t be removed. Notice that this meansthat there isn’t a free lunch after all. And there are at least three severefurther problems with this plan. First, will the quid pro quo really be enforced, or willloggers simply make off with the quid and forget about the quo? The ForestService, which would be in charge of enforcement, has repeatedly been cited byCongress’s General Accounting Office for poor management and lack ofaccountability. And the agency, true to Bush administration form, is now run bya former industry lobbyist. (In the 2000 election cycle, the forest productsindustry gave 82 percent of its contributions to Republicans.) You don’t have tobe much of a cynic to question whether loggers will really be held to theirpromises. Second, linkinglogging of mature trees to clearing of underbrush is a policy non sequitur.Suppose Mayor Mike Bloomberg announced that Waste Management Inc. would pick upManhattan’s trash free, in return for the right to dump toxic waste on StatenIsland. Staten Island residents would protest, correctly, that if Manhattanwants its garbage picked up, it should pay for the service; if the city wants tosell companies the right to dump elsewhere, that should be treated as a separateissue. Similarly, if the federal government wants to clear underbrush nearpopulated areas, it should pay for it; if it wants to sell the right to logmature trees elsewhere, that should be a separate decision. And this gets us to the last point: In fact, the governmentdoesn’t make money when it sells timber rights to loggers. According to theGeneral Accounting Office, the Forest Service consistently spends more moneyarranging timber sales than it actually gets from the sales. How much money?Funny you should ask: last year the Bush administration stopped releasing thatinformation. In any case, the measured costs of timber sales capture only afraction of the true budgetary costs of logging in the national forests, whichis supported by hundreds of millions of dollars in federal subsidies, especiallyfor road-building. This means that, environmental issues aside, inducing loggingcompanies to clear underbrush by letting them log elsewhere would probably endup costing taxpayers more, not less, than dealing with the problem directly. Soas in the case of the administration’s energy policy, beneath the free-marketrhetoric is a plan for increased subsidies to favored corporations. Surprise. Afinal thought: Wouldn’t it be nice if just once, on some issue, the Bushadministration came up with a plan that didn’t involve weakened environmentalprotection, financial breaks for wealthy individuals and corporations andreduced public oversight?