Miles of Roads
Figure 6

Reactionary environmentalists have a schizophrenic attitude toward government. On the one hand, they consider government bureaucracies a great evil and a threat to the environment. On the other hand, in political debates they almost always favor transferring more power to government. Progressive environmentalists, by contrast, know that environmental bureaucracies behave like other bureaucracies.

Case Study: Government Mismanagement of our Natural Resources. The United States is generally thought of as a country devoted to the principle of private property. Yet about 42 percent of all U.S. land is owned by government – 33 percent by the federal government and 9 percent by state and local governments.

Among the lands owned by the federal government are treasured resources – rare and beautiful tracts that are home for countless species of foliage and wildlife and contain some of the most ecologically interesting wonders on earth. Yet mounting evidence suggests that the federal government has been a poor manager, often engaging in policies that have led to environmental destruction. For example: [130]

  • Because of Park Service policies, the white-tailed deer, mountain lion, lynx, bobcat, wolverine and fisher all have vanished from Yellowstone National Park, and the Rocky Mountain gray wolf is now extinct.

  • The Park Service also is responsible for a serious decline in the numbers of black bears, grizzlies, bighorn sheep, mule deer and beaver in Yellowstone. (See the case study below.)

The record of the U.S. Forest Service is probably worse than that of the National Park Service.

  • About 342,000 miles of roads have been built in our national forests – more than eight times the total mileage of the U.S. Interstate Highway System. [131] [See Figure VI.]

  • These roads, primarily designed to facilitate logging, extend into the ecologically fragile backcountry of the Rocky Mountains and Alaska, where they are causing massive soil erosion, damaging trout and salmon fisheries and causing other environmental harm. [132]

  • In many cases, the costs of these logging activities far exceed any commercial benefit from the timber acquired; so this environmental destruction would not have occurred in the absence of government subsidies. [133]

Taxpayers also have been subsidizing environmental destruction by other federal agencies responsible for environmental stewardship:

  • Bureau of Reclamation projects have eliminated one national wildlife refuge (see the case study below) and others are threatened by water shortage and contamination. [134]

  • Because of the Bureau of Land Management, more than three million acres of wildlife habitat were cleared with huge chains (600-foot anchor chains weighing 100 pounds to the link drawn across the landscape by 200,000-pound D-8 crawler tractors) and replaced with fields of crested wheatgrass for domestic livestock. [135]

Space does not permit a full discussion of all of the ways in which federal bureaucracies cause environmental harm. However, a host of other rules, regulations and policies buried within the labyrinth of the huge federal bureaucracy also encourage environmental destruction in sometimes subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, ways. For example: [136]

  • Special provisions in the tax code, in addition to low-interest Small Business Administration (SBA) loans, have subsidized uneconomic development on the periphery of ecologically fragile areas, including Yellowstone National Park.

  • Conservation measures intended to reduce soil erosion very often have fostered farming practices that cause increased erosion.

  • Price supports for agricultural products have encouraged uneconomical farm development and led to the draining of marshes that formerly provided important habitats for waterfowl.

  • Federal subsidies for flood and hurricane insurance, grants from public utility and highway funds, and projects sponsored by the Army Corps of Engineers all have contributed to destruction in the Barrier Islands along the Atlantic and Gulf Coast regions.

  • The federal government's Animal Damage Control Program still employes 700 trappers whose job it is to kill bears, mountain lions, bobcats, lynxes, coyotes and wolves in order to protect domestic livestock.

Case Study: The Not-So-Superfund. In response to the Love Canal crisis, Congress passed the Superfund bill in 1980 to establish an emergency fund for cleanup of the nation's hazardous waste sites. [137] Yet Superfund appears to have benefitted trial lawyers and politicians a lot more than the public: [138]

  • After seven years of operation, Superfund had paid for cleanup efforts at only about a dozen hazardous waste sites, most of which were still leaking toxic waste into the ground water.

  • Of the first $1 billion Superfund spent, more than half went toward litigation, and the situation has not improved despite billions more being spent.

  • Every state was entitled to at least one hazardous waste site worthy of federal cleanup, enabling every Senator to claim credit for least one cleanup effort.

  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also was originally instructed to find at least 400 waste sites, roughly matching the number of congressional districts.

Has Superfund made us safer? Few now think so. Superfund's primary method of cleanup has been to transfer hazardous waste from a waste site to a disposal site at which the waste is stored for a period of time. Often, this system has simply spread the waste problem. For example, the Government Accounting Office determined that most Superfund disposal sites are leaking themselves. [139]

Nor is it clear how anyone could find out if Superfund has made us safer. Except for Love Canal, identified before the creation of Superfund, not a single Superfund site has been analyzed to determine the actual health risks for area residents. In fact, there is only one site for which the government has a complete list of people exposed to the hazardous wastes. [140]

Perhaps the worst damage done by Superfund is that it has discouraged private sector solutions to the problem of hazardous waste disposal, especially voluntary cleanup efforts. Prior to Superfund and other environmental legislation, firms sufficiently solvent to be accountable for their torts generally did a responsible and competent job. In the case of Love Canal, for example, the protection built in by Hooker (presumably to avoid liability for potential damages from leaks) was judged decades later to be sufficient to meet even the tough EPA standards of the 1980s. [141]