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Jewish World Review Dec. 5, 2002 / 30 Kislev, 5763

Robert W. Tracinski

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Red-tape conservationists | Environmentalists are up in arms about a recent Bush administration proposal to reduce red tape on logging in federal lands. But what this controversy is really about is not just the "conservation" of forests, but the conservation of the vast, arbitrary authority of federal regulatory agencies -- an authority environmentalists are accustomed to exploiting for their agenda.

Environmentalists seek to protect their de-facto ban on logging by preserving the red tape that makes logging on federal land nearly impossible. But more than that, the purpose of the existing system, developed over the past two decades, is not just to bury loggers under paperwork. It is also intended to generate the kind of paperwork that stacks the deck against anyone who wants to put the forests to human use. As a San Francisco Chronicle editorial puts it, in "balancing the many competing demands on the forests," the existing system "puts a premium on protecting old-growth trees and sustaining fish and wildlife." That's a pleasant way of saying that when it comes to deciding who has a right to make use of federal lands, regulators make sure that trees, animals and fish are first on the list. Humans are last.

But the most nefarious aspect of these existing rules is that they have been imposed with little meaningful public debate or discussion and little direct control by Congress. Past regulations have been imposed in the same manner that the new, less-restrictive process is being adopted: by executive-branch decree. The result of those decrees over the past three decades has been a vast environmentalist land grab, with millions of acres of land sealed off from logging, mining, grazing and even recreation.

This is a basic technique used by the Left to achieve through the regulatory agencies what they could not achieve in an open vote. The technique is to introduce legislation to achieve some vague, positive-sounding generality, such as "worker safety" or "environmental protection" -- things no politician will want to go on record voting against. When the legislation is passed and a new regulatory agency is created to enforce it, that's when the actual decisions are made about what specific restrictions will be imposed and which lands will be removed from human use. Governmental power is passed down to an army of minor bureaucrats who are not accountable to the people and only vaguely accountable to Congress and the president.

Consider that federal regulatory agencies make thousands of rulings each year, adding about 80,000 pages annually to the Federal Register. Do you think Congress can exercise "oversight" by debating all 80,000 pages of these regulations? Do you think the president, his advisors and his cabinet officers can consider and personally approve all of these decrees? Of course not. By its nature, the federal decree-issuing apparatus cannot be controlled, and it has only one tendency: to impose more regulations and, by filling the federal register with such restrictions, to make private activities like logging grind to a halt.

This is a large part of the reason for the environmentalists screaming over the proposed new rules. For the past eight years, the greens had control over this vast regulatory apparatus. Every few months, we would hear about a new decree. Millions of acres would be shut off from human use -- and thousands of loggers would be thrown out of work without warning -- because of a bureaucratic finding about the spotted owl. Then there would be a freeze on road building -- and no one can use the forest if there are no roads going to it. Then there would be a ban on snowmobiling in public parks, and so on.

What greens object to is not just the content of the new rules, which would lift some of the "impact statement" requirement and give less weight to the presumption that land must be preserved as an end in itself. What environmentalists object to is the very fact that there would be fewer rules -- which means: less power for their army of unelected regulators.

Next to this issue, the current flap in Washington over whether presidential advisor Karl Rove is too political or has too much power in the administration is petty and ridiculous. The real problem of power without accountability can be found in the regulatory agencies, and in their decades-long assault on private industry in service to the environmentalist cause.

The regulatory agencies are vast preserves of unaccountable power -- and the Bush administration has, alas, only begun to thin their forest of regulations.

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