Private Ownership Benefits in the Wake of Volcanic Eruption

The following is a guest post by my friend and former online student, Jim Vinoski. It’s wonderful to have Jim’s contribution.

In Free Our Markets, Chapter Four, “Ownership Matters,” you’ll read, “Private owners have strong incentives to look after their property so that it can be a source of profits and other benefits to them year after year.”

I happened upon a very visible example of this about a dozen years ago when I had the opportunity to see Mt. St. Helens firsthand.  On my drive to the mountain, evidence of the famous 1980 eruption started to appear some thirty miles away from the peak, with visible major silting in the Cowlitz River and Hoffstadt Creek; yet there was little indication in the surrounding forest of the blast zone the volcano had created all those years ago.  The lush Douglas firs were growing in abundance for many miles – until about ten miles from the caldera, when they abruptly ended in a very obvious line.  For the rest of the trip, the terrain was a near-moonscape, with only occasional growths of hardscrabble scrub here and there in the ash-covered wilderness.  That sudden change from a luxuriant forest to a barren landscape puzzled me.

At the Johnston Ridge Observatory Visitor Center, I learned the reason.  The lush growth was on land owned by Weyerhaeuser Company, which aggressively replanted beginning almost immediately after the eruption was over.  The moonscape was owned by the federal government – namely, the US Forest Service – which decided to let it regrow naturally to see what would happen after such a cataclysm.

The private owner Weyerhaeuser had an obvious financial incentive to get the forest back into shape quickly.  You can read all about their recovery and reforestation activities here.  I highly recommend you check it out – it’s a fascinating story.  Not only did the company salvage enormous quantities of dead and damaged trees (enough to build 85,000 new three-story homes) to clear the ruined landscape, but they also burned away anything not salvageable, then literally dug through the ash to reach good soil in which to plant millions upon millions of seedlings.  They found that the forest and the accompanying wildlife returned quickly to good health.  They began harvesting those now-grown seedlings in 2005, finally beginning to realize a return on their enormous investment.  Along the way they’ve regrown a beautiful western forest that benefits not only the Weyerhaeuser bottom line, but visitors like me, hunters, and other sportsmen as well.

The taxpayer-financed US Forest Service has no profit motive, a fact made abundantly clear in Free Our Markets in its review of that agency’s loss-making building of logging roads in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.   At Mt. St. Helens, the Forest Service has done pretty much nothing with its public land, by design, not even salvaging downed lumber.  That inactivity may have its own reward in helping us better understand natural cycles, but I’ll let you decide for yourself whether their approach or the market-driven one has been more beneficial to society as a whole.

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