11/11/2002

 

Aiming for common ground after the elections

 

It looks like the state will have a Democratic governor and Republican led legislature. An excellent time to look at ways to find common ground. Iíll use as a starting point a letter I received in response to my last column.

 

The letter writer expressed concern about rural jobs. Obviously everyoneís in favor of that. He states that ranchers are stewards of the land; Iíll take that to mean that he, too, is concerned that our lands and environment be in good shape. So we have a couple of points in common and probably less to disagree over than he thinks.

 

Iíll get to that common ground shortly, but first Iíll describe two principles government should follow. One is that we canít do things in absolutes. We canít write laws that, for instance, say that all endangered species must be protected at all costs. While some people might like that idea, the reality is that if so many species were declared endangered over so much of the country that it would bankrupt us, you know we would go back to the legislative drawing board and rewrite it. It should be a very high concern, since we have no right to carelessly eradicate species, and it can never be undone, but it still has to be put in the context of what we can really do.

 

The second principle is that we have to cushion the blow when government changes affect people. Even with defense contracts, with a simple vote to stop some project, thousands of people can be out of a job. There needs to be a way to slowly wind down such jobs, or shift alternative work to these businesses, or help the workers find other work and rebuild their lives. We shouldnít just let people casually get chewed up in the machinery of government.

 

So while I support protection of old growth forests and endangered species and the environment, I believe they need to be managed in a way that minimizes the negative effects on individuals. And thatís primarily what it is, a management problem. Neither party has mastered the Herculean task of managing a huge government well.

 

The writer says that sawmill workers lose jobs when old-growth forest protection is enforced by lawsuit. Some of this is the result of poor management over time. Much as with the budget mess in Arizona, in which the legislature didnít take care of important issues like education for years, so it had to be handled in other ways, like voter initiatives. This is not the optimal way to manage things, and leaves the legislature with little control over the budget. Similarly with forest management, the industry barrels along full speed as if the forests will provide old wood forever, when in fact the industry is headed for a crash with the reality of an unsustainable amount of old-growth left. Good management of that resource, and the people whoís jobs depend on it, could have made the economic impact much more manageable.

 

The reason there are laws for these suits to be based on is because they are in keeping with the will of the people. Party affiliation aside, polls pretty consistently show a majority of people want the environment protected. The trick is to find a way to achieve that end without chewing up the jobs of people caught in the way. So, it seems safe to say most people want to maximize protection of the environment while minimizing the loss of jobs. Thereís certainly room for disagreement about how to do that, but we are hardly starting from polar opposite positions.

 

This whole issue, though, is an excellent example of how it seems there are two very different groups who come under the definition of ďconservativeĒ. There are the working- and middle-class, conservative-minded people genuinely concerned about issues as diverse as jobs and the environment. Then there are the so-called conservatives in the aristocratic class, too many of whom are only concerned about the growth of their business. If that business is timber they wonít care if all the old-growth forest is gone, or if the industry crashes when it reaches that point and workers are left hanging, much as the wheeler-dealers at WorldCom left their workers hanging when they pulled out their money and ran before their crash. But that will have to wait for another column.