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,


 
transferring land to the states ... a lot of the ranchers aren't that enthusiastic.
"They fear change," he notes. "They that the grazing fee might be higher at the state level, which it is right now, and they fear that their tenure status might be altered at the state level.
"So the ranchers are rather ambivalent about, or schizophrenic about, the whole situation.
"The upshot is," says Nelson, devolution of western public lands to western states "might be a good thing, and it might even benefit the citizens of the state as a whole, but the ones who are the biggest players in public land discussions, are generally the ones who are the major beneficiaries of the existing system. And they don't want to change."
Nelson's ideas, he says, naturally emerge from four common sense principles. In a paper published by CEI in June, 1995, Nelson describes those principles as:
"1. Activities that can reasonably be carried out in the private sector should be done privately.
"2. Activities that mostly involve state and local concerns should be administered by state and local governments.
"3. The Federal government should limit its role to activities and concerns that involve major Federal interests and responsibilities.
"4. Administrative organization at the Federal level should place similar functions in the same agency."




Though these are mere 'common sense' principles, he says, applying them to the Department of the Interior would produce dramatic changes.
"The result would be to abolish altogether six of the current ten agencies located within the Department of the Interior -- the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Geological Survey, National Biological Service, Minerals Management Service and Bureau of Mines.
"Three other agencies, the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs would be sharply reduced in size. The majority of their current responsibilities -- perhaps 75 percent -- would be transferred to state governments, to tribes, and to private groups."
Nelson acknowledges no large constituency currently exists to support his recipe for spinning-off the administration of Western public lands. Fundamental change is feared not only by resource interests, he says, but by environmentalists and the federal land bureaucracies themselves.
"A lot of the people in the environmental movement who play [a role] in public land policy are here in Washington," says Nelson. "Or, if they're not here in Washington, they've at least mastered the existing system, and they know how to file suits, and


 
they know how to apply pressure, and do this and that. [So] they're not enthusiastic about learning a new system, either."
And, as for the federal land agencies, he says, "Bureaucracies are bureaucracies, all around the world."
There is, however, says Nelson, widespread agreement with his diagnosis of how the federal land agencies have failed.
"There's a lot of agreement in diagnosing the fact that the current agencies are not working," he says.
"And there can be agreement on things like below-cost timber sales... where the Forest Service goes out and sells timber for less than the administrative cost of harvesting the timber. And which has been a major issue for the last 15 or so years.
"On an issue like that, enviromentalists are opposed to below-cost timber sales because they basically don't like any kind of timber sales. And fiscal conservatives are opposed to them because they're money-losing.
"Or a similar alliance in the past was formed," says Nelson, "between enviromentalists who hated dams, and economists who had been writing for 20 years that most of them were boondoggles, with benefit levels that were




half or less of what the costs were. So there are these areas."
Even most career people in the Forest Service and BLM, he says, agree with his view that the federal land agencies are failures at their basic missions of stewardship for the public lands.
"All the people in public land management believe that they can't manage any more," he told Electric Nevada.
In the Forest Service especially, said Nelson, there is a widespread demoralization.
Asked about the sense that many westerners now have, that Forest Service rangers look, as it were, through narrow and suspicious eyes at the average Westerns citizens around them, Nelson said there's a new defensiveness in the agency.
"I think that's because the Forest Service hasn't changed that much with the times [while] ... the demands on the service [have]."
"In 1960 you could have said that the Forest Service culture was quite in tune with where American society was, [but] now ... a lot of environmentalists, or a lot of free market conservatives ... make harsher criticisms of the Forest Service than it was ever used to getting in the past -- talking about it as a corrupt


 
organization, and things like that."
The result, he said, is that the Forest Service has become much more defensive, and lost a remarkable esprit d' corps it used to have.
"In the old days, to be in the Forest Service, was to have a real sense of the righteousness of your cause. And now,




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."

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