The lousy economics of Bush's new forest policy.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Dec. 4 2002 11:06 AM

Dead Wood

The lousy economics of Bush's new forest policy.

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For many parts of the West, it was only when logging was curtailed in the late '80s and early '90s that things picked up. That's because standing trees—which attract tourists, well-heeled fly-fishers, and retirees looking for a home in the country—are worth more than cut trees. Thomas Power, an economist with the University of Montana, says that by the late '90s, eight of 10 national forests in Montana generated three times as much income from tourism and recreation as they did from cutting down trees.

Typical of the West's new economic order are companies such as North Fork Anglers, founded by fishing guide Tim Wade in Cody, Wyo., in 1984. Today the shop employs 15 retail employees and guides and hosts as many as 400 fishers a year who pay $150 a day for the privilege of wetting a line, fill Cody's hotel rooms and restaurants, and add to the coffers of United and Delta airlines. Moreover, Wade's company is theoretically permanent. It is not destroying the rivers. Loggers, by contrast, are paid to decimate the very thing that keeps them employed.

But perhaps the Bush administration's rule changes really are not about economics. In conservative circles logging is a bellwether issue, a club with which to beat Bill Clinton, the Sierra Club, and the heavy hand of government in general. Logging is a kind of religious issue: Conservatives take it on faith that cutting down trees is good for business. But the economics of the West during the past 20 years argues that it isn't.

Douglas Gantenbein is the Seattle correspondent for the Economist.

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