Former Senior Economist at Interior
Now Advocates Breaking Up of Agency
by Steve Miller
copyright (c) 1997, Electric Nevada
After 18 years in the U.S. Department of Interior's Office of Policy Analysis, in Washington, D. C., Dr. Robert H. Nelson came to a heretical conclusion. The giant bureaucracy, he judged, not only has failed, but, by its nature, must fail, and simply should be broken up.
Nelson is an Easterner -- a senior fellow in Environmental Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, a former visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution there and at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, and professor of environmental policy at the University of Maryland.
Yet he argues, in his most recent writings, for changes in the Interior Department more radical than even its most inveterate 'Sagebrush Rebel' foes have demanded.
America's existing public land system, says Nelson, grew out of a naive late-19th-Century philosophy of scientific management that was America's watered-down equivalent of infatuation Europeans had, at the time, with the idea of socialism.
It was a set of ideas celebrating centralized 'scientific' administration -- ideas that, in recent decades, have been repudiated by former socialists all around the world.
Nelson, in his new book, Public Lands and Private Rights: The Failure of Scientific Management, analyzes
the past 25 years of public land policy and documents major failures in areas like forest and rangeland management, stemming from the late 19th Century paradigms.
He also presents a case for fundamental change -- change that would include the transfer of large areas of public land to the states and even privatization of some existing public lands.
Yet Nelson is not -- as some environmentalist might assume -- an apologist for Western resource industries.
His description of the approach of former Interior Secretary James Watt toward the federal government is: "the traditional Western attitude described by novelist Wallace Stegner: 'get out, and give us more money.'"
And Nelson notes that currently dominant resource interests find his proposals frightening.
"A lot of interest groups have become dependent on [the federal land] agencies in specific ways, and are actually surprisingly resistant ... to change," he says.
"If you talk about ... let's say,
these are mere 'common sense' principles, he says,
applying them to the Department of the Interior would
produce dramatic changes.
half or less of what
the costs were. So there are these areas."
to be in the Forest Service is to have people tell you you're part of a bad agency. And even if you don't believe it, it's still got to be disturbing to hear it."
Week: How Real Change
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