Don't Trust the Government with the Environment
The state is often assumed to be nature’s default, benevolent caretaker. Government agencies are free from the short-sighted profit motive, we are told, and can steward land for the long term. If only this were true. In fact, in a myriad of ways, governments are among the worst polluters in the world, and even the agencies of the state specifically devoted to environmental stewardship have themselves helped cause environmental disasters.
Land Use Planning and Subsidies
For environmental and aesthetic reasons, many believe that mass transit options like railways, as well as pedestrian routes, aren’t widespread enough in the U.S., and that Americans are too reliant on smog-emitting cars. They may be surprised to find one major culprit hidden in plain view. The state has long used tax dollars to build and maintain approximately 2.8 million miles of paved roads and highways in the U.S., subsidizing urban sprawl and automobile use, and hence undermining the market viability of substitutes like mass transit and walking.
Without tax-funded provision of roads and highways, had private enterprise had to consciously pay for each new mile of road — not to mention the sewer, gas, water, and electricity lines that suburbs require — land resources and transport would be markedly different. Cities may have instead been more compact, leaving more wilderness untrammeled. Public transportation may have been more widespread. Cities may have also been connected to one another to a greater degree by (privately-owned) trains rather than by today’s interstate highway system.
It’s impossible to know what the counterfactual world would have looked like, but it’s reasonable to assume that had the state not used tax money to fund 2.8 million miles of a particular form of transportation (paved roads and highways), then competing forms (railways, pedestrian routes), which have been subsidized to a lesser extent, would have been more prevalent.
The Military as Prime Polluter
The military provides another outlet through which the state corrodes the environment. According to Alexander Nazaryan:
The U.S. Department of Defense is one of the world's worst polluters. Its footprint dwarfs that of any corporation: 4,127 installations spread across 19 million acres of American soil. Maureen Sullivan, who heads the Pentagon's environmental programmes, says her office contends with 39,000 contaminated sites.
The purpose of the military, of course, is not to steward natural resources. So how do agencies which are dedicated to husbandry fare?
Mis-Managing Natural Resources
The four largest federal land management agencies in the U.S. are the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and Forest Service. For the 2018 fiscal year, their total maintenance project backlog was an estimated $19.38 billion. The National Park Service was responsible for the bulk of this figure with $11.92 billion of delayed projects, compared to a 2016 annual budget of about $3 billion.
In addition to the inability to implement planned maintenance on schedule, federal land management has suffered from failure to formulate adequate policies to begin with. Over 1.2 million acres of California burned in wildfires in 2017, followed by over 1.8 million acres in 2018. National Forest Service policy had a direct role in the contributing to the problem. According to Robert Nelson:
Nineteen million acres of California forests—almost 20 percent of the state’s total land area—are owned and managed by the federal government. The fires are in significant part the product of past federal forest mismanagement.
The Forest Service policy of total fire suppression, in place for most of the 20th century, meant California's national forests contained large volumes of kindling-like small trees and underbrush. Before the Forest Service embarked on its crusade to suppress them, frequent but much smaller fires routinely removed these "excess fuels" while leaving the larger trees little affected.1
After helping set the stage for the fires, bureaucratic impotence failed to contain them:
Federal land management agencies remain mired in gridlock and dysfunction. This past summer, the Forest Service itself acknowledged that "catastrophic wildfires and the corresponding loss of lives, homes, and natural resources have continued to grow, partly because our treatments have been uncoordinated and not at the right scale."2
It’s difficult to imagine a private land conservation trust or forestry company being so inept as to allow millions of dollars of its own assets burn to the ground year after year, let alone in a way that resulted in the destruction of other people’s lives and property. This is true, in part, because private owners are legally and financially responsible for their actions. Employees of the National Forest Service, meanwhile, lose nothing as a result of decades of a ruinous total fire suppression policy. The taxpayers paid for the bureaucrats' mistakes — and also paid their salaries.
Given that we're often told government-planned economies are better for the environment, sure the centrally-planned Soviet Union preserved a pristine paradise within its borders? Unfortunately, the Soviets had a cartoonishly bad environmental record. To name just one example: the Aral Sea used to be the fourth largest lake in the world. Then, Stalin diverted its two major contributing rivers for crop irrigation, and now the Aral Sea — and all its surrounding ecosystems are now almost totally dried up and destroyed.
And then there are the rivers. In the 1971 New York Times article “Why Does the Volga Catch Fire?” Marshall I. Goldman comments on the five-year plan for 1971-1975, “Nothing is said about reducing the oil content of the Iset and Volga Rivers which have a tendency to catch fire so, that periodically fire men are called ‘to put out the river.’3 Most famously, the Soviet Chernobyl nuclear power plant meltdown resulted in a 1,000 square mile radioactive exclusion zone.
Why is the government such a terrible steward of the environment? Why not? When a government agency fails, it is declared to be “underfunded” and the outcry is for the agency in question to be trusted with more money and responsibility, not less. It hard to see why governments would have any incentive to change the status quo.