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Voluntary 'Carbon Offsetting' as Strategy for Privatizing America's Public Lands

William Willers

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 " 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 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

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