Voluntary “Carbon Offsetting” As Strategy For Privatizing America’s Public Lands

Concern about catastrophes related to global warming has generated a scheme for “carbon offsetting” in which citizens are encouraged to compensate for personal CO2 (greenhouse gas) production by paying for equivalent reduction elsewhere, such as with wind energy or tree planting. British Petroleum, for example, advertises that by paying about $40 a year drivers can make up for their gasoline consumption by letting global warming become a problem for someone else to solve. Because this tends to neutralize any sense of individual responsibility even as it allows for ongoing high levels of fossil fuel use, critics have denounced the plan as both inadequate and subversive.

There is a new twist to the carbon offsetting policy that is particularly insidious in that it is linked with the loss of public ownership of America’s public domain. On July 25, 2007, the U.S. Forest Service announced a “Carbon Capital Fund” that would allow one to “offset” personal CO2 emissions by purchasing vouchers, the cash then being applied to tree planting in national forests. The Service has a website at which a well-intentioned citizen can determine one’s annual “carbon footprint”, which the Service reports to be, on average, 10.73 metric tons. At $6 per ton, that would indicate an annual individual “investment” in the Fund of $64.38. In other words, the U.S. Forest Service is seeking voluntary donations from citizens for “management” that for generations has been paid for by taxes. (Consider also the irony that the massive clearcutting projects of the Forest Service in recent decades has been linked to global warming).

But there is even more to this Carbon Capital Fund in that it is being done in concert with a tax-exempt organization, the National Forest Foundation (NFF). Generally, governmental bureaus funded by federal taxes do not solicit private funding as a means of support. But in 1990, the NFF was established by Congress “…to encourage, accept and administer private gifts of money and property for the benefit of the U.S. Forest Service, and to conduct activities that further the purposes and programs of the National Forest System.” In fact, NFF president Bill Possiel claims credit for the Carbon Capital Fund: “We came up with the idea because everyone is looking at what they can do in terms of climate change.” The NFF executive committee includes members from Pegasus Capital Investors, Intel Corp. and Recreational Equipment, Inc. (Chairman, Vice Chairman and Treasurer respectively).

The NFF provides a route for the transfer of funding responsibility away from the public sector. Its Matching Awards Program stipulates “NFF funds awarded through this program can be disbursed only as a match to cash contributions from a non-federal source.” Instead of funding the Forest Service directly and completely, Congress has made tax money available only if matched from the private sector. Federal funding of NFF in 2006 totaled nearly four million dollars.

Industry groups support NFF programs not only because donations are tax-deductible but also because they provide a means by which corporations and their public relations organizations can then advertise their concern for the environment. Moreover, because corporations are the truly significant players in “the private sector”, they will ultimately be the real benefactors in the privatization of public domain. Consider these excerpts from the NFF website:

“The NFF represents the Forest Service in its outreach programs to forest users. Each of these programs may be viewed as a promotional property, which offers marketing and public relations benefits to corporate partner brands;… Corporate recognition is given based on levels of cash, product and in-kind support;… NFF staff has extensive experience working with corporations and their brands in sales promotion activity tied to conservation;… Working with public relations, sales promotion and advertising agencies, the NFF assists companies to create consumer communications that differentiate them from competitors.”

This is part of a long-term strategy to privatize the public’s forests, a process implemented during the Reagan Revolution through stepwise defunding of land management agencies in the name of “trimming budgets”. The process continues to this day and has forced the U.S. Forest Service to seek funds from the private sector simply to continue on. Nor is the larger plan confined to the national forests alone but includes the federal lands generally — BLM lands, national parks and wildlife refuges as well, collectively nearly a third of the nation. At about the time the NFF was being created, corresponding foundations were established in the form of the National Park Foundation and the Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

The coordinated effort to privatize federal lands has included the “Sagebrush Revolution” of the 1970s, the “Wise Use Movement” of the 80s and 90s, and the more recent “free-market environmentalism” that consists of a network of corporations and conservative foundations and think tanks intent on gaining control of what was intended to belong collectively to “We the People”. Right wing economist James Beckwith, writing for the Cato Institute in 1981 with reference to public parks, summed up the strategy bluntly in his call for “…ascending radicalism from reform through volunteerism and privatization of services to the outright abolition of public ownership and transfer of parks to private parties.”

The privatization of public domain has recently involved “competitive outsourcing” of positions formerly held by federal employees and “public-private partnerships” with corporate interests. And now there is the Carbon Capital Fund that gets the average citizen into the privatization project by exploiting the altruistic instinct to volunteer in reducing global warming. In being the first governmental entity to sell carbon offsets, the U.S. Forest Service is certainly providing a pilot project that can reveal avenues into other agencies and toward a further privatization of society.

Free market economist Beckwith was a savvy strategizer who understood that too sudden a takeover of public land would trigger citizen reaction, so he proposed that privatization be introduced by degrees, with the most “tentative step” being recruitment of volunteers and later “the contracting out of support services to private firms operating for profit.” The public, it seems, is presently like the fabled frog in gradually heated water, unaware that it is losing one of the greatest gifts it has to convey to future generations.

Bill Willers is an emeritus professor of biology, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, now living in Madison, Wisconsin. He is editor of Learning to Listen to the Land and Unmanaged Landscapes, both from Island Press. He can be reached at willers@charter.net. Read other articles by Bill.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. David Kennedy said on August 22nd, 2007 at 10:05am #

    Britain slavish follows in the footsteps of America. We have stars and stripes in our eyes. We all want to be Americans!

    Whenever the clever merchants of American finance get a ‘wonderful’ idea, Britain will tag along not far behind.

    And so we have seen the loss of most of our public utilities. This hasn’t been accompanied by greater efficiency or better service, but simply by higher charges and huge payouts to the topcats because of their wisdom in putting up charges and so increasing profits.

    Railways, buses, telephones, gas, electricity, water, education, public housing, building societies, health services have all gone down this road, or are well on the way. All is now driven by the profit motive – and we can see to our cost just how disadvantageous it is to the ordinary person who has to cough up the cash however bad the deal.

    A huge swathe of public land has been sold off at knockdown prices to private companies and, again, more is in the pipeline. Publicly-owned schools have been forced to sell off their playing fields to building developers, as have many other educational institutions, and so it goes on.

    The latest scam is ‘carbon offsetting’. The ruling junta certainly comes up with lots of rot to keep ordinary folks guessing. Fossil fuels in the first place came from hundreds of millions of years’ worth of forest decay (when much of the earth’s landmass was covered in forests). This huge amount of ‘captured carbon’ is being returned back to the atmosphere over a period of approximately 200 years. Even if we covered the earth with forests, this wouldn’t offset any more than a very small fraction of the carbon that is put into the atmosphere every day from the burning of fossil fuels.

    This really has nothing to do with financiers or other city-slickers who make their profits by juggling with other people’s money. It is a simple matter of arithmetic concerning the movement of carbon into and out of the atmosphere. Big Oil knows this quite well, but doesn’t want to admit it – just as the tobacco companies know how harmful their products are and have tried every trick in the trade to hide this knowledge from the public.

  2. Susan and Mike said on August 23rd, 2007 at 9:00am #

    Your article on carbon emissions was outstanding. In California the situation is even more unbelievable. As everyone knows our Governor Schwachneger has a huge push to combat climate change — and even is supporting a forest project with carbon credits.. At the same time he and the rest of the California legislature are allowing massive clearcutting of the Sierra Nevada – a fragile and special ecosystem. The clearcutting is being done by Sierra Pacific Industries who is clearcutting up to 1 million acres!!! Much clearcutting has been done already and the Google Earth pictures of the Sierra Nevada are now shocking – news papers for some reason are afraid to show the truth or even talk about the irony of allowing clearcutting while pushing on climate change issues. The extent of the deforestation can be seen on http://www.epfw.org, http://www.stopclearcuttingcalifornia.org, and http://www.savethesierra.org. SPI and the timber industry says it is good for climate change to completely denude the forest – because they will plant new trees that “someday” will sequester more carbon…. guess we will just wait for that someday — which may be too late. The clearcutting is even being approved on three sides — within 200 feet of the giant sequoia (thousands of years old) California State Park – Big Trees. Next the Governor will be giving Sierra Pacific Carbon credits for completely devastating the Sierra and planting baby trees to replace the massive carbon sinks that once stood there. We support responsible logging – not complete deforestation.

  3. John Nordgren said on August 23rd, 2007 at 10:31am #

    The motivation of this article is on target. You are right that there has been, for decades, a concerted effort by industry to exploit our public lands for private profit. Use of the 1872 mining act to claim and access mineral resources for pennies, below-cost timber sales, and ridiculously low grazing fees are at the top of this list and have cost the American people billions of dollars and in some cases pricesless landscapes. Nothing new about this. However, the use of Carbon credits to mitigate greenhouse gas emssions through offset projects like tree plantings in previously deforested national forests, does not equate with these corporate wellfare schemes. Anyone with a minimal understanding of the offset mechanism will understand that there is no control, no conveyance of ownership or management implicit in these transactions. The Forest Service will bear the cost of the transactions and will in the process be rewarded with funding for restoration of habitats that is not forthcoming from the all-too-meager federal budgets. As far as the legitimacy of the offsets go, that is something that will have to be verified and remain in question (probably) until there is a federal cap and trade system in place for Carbon that addresses the need for standards by which to measure such projects.
    A side note to Mr Kennedy (first response): Carbon emissions from unsustainable timber management and forest converstion account for 20-25% of carbon emissions worldwide. This is as much as the entire energy sector, and more than the transporation sector. Forests represent an important climate mitigation strategy, and come with the added benefit of improved wildlife habitat and water resources protection services. If we dont utilize all of the tools available to us to address climate change, we will not meet the challenge.

  4. Bill Willers said on August 29th, 2007 at 10:08am #

    There are more ways than one to benefit financially from public lands by taking the public for a ride. It is not necessary that there be “conveyance of ownership or management” or that all projects “equate with these corporate welfare schemes” which are simply more obvious in their directness. When timber companies cash in on the public’s forests, as they have for decades, and when then a plan emerges using a matching funds system for replanting — why certainly there has been a loss to the public and a strengthening of private sector control. It’s just being accomplished by a more circuitous – one might say devious – route. Mr. Nordgren, with his assumption of the desirability of a “federal cap and trade system”, is entirely in synch with the corporate sector in his commitment to “market related solutions” to global warming.

  5. John Nordgren said on September 21st, 2007 at 6:00am #

    Whether a federal cap and trade system is desireable or not, the reality is that it is the most likely structure that will emerge to curb greenhouse gas emissions. I am no free-market economist, but the alternative of imposing a gas tax and leaving decisions about where to spend the proceeds to politicians is not terrible attractive, particularly because those politicians are owned by corporations on most cases. We want climate solutions and co-benefits (right?) and the proposed plan will deliver them. There will be no strengthening of corporate control over our public lands if this scheme is implemented. (It could be argued that complete control already exists, by the way.) This conspiracy theory of yours is interesting, but irrelevant. The public benefits (climate change mitigation, wildlife habitat restoration, water resources protection), not corporate profits, trump concerns over corporate welfare here precisely because they already exist and this doesnt worsen them.