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Libertarian Forest Politics

After EW commented on Lane County Commission candidate Andy Stahl’s connection to Cato Institute Senior Fellow Randal O’Toole in an April 5 Slant column, the fur began to fly. Letters to the editor, online comments and even tweets chided EW for “smearing” Stahl with the connection to O’Toole and Cato.

Cato, though controversially connected to the Koch Brothers, is a respected libertarian think tank, so why the raised hackles? Possibly due to a connection to another hot-button issue — the DeFazio-Schrader-Walden forest plan. It turns out that O’Toole has been touting a timber trust plan to Congress for years. 

The DeFazio plan, which proposes logging on 1.5 million acres of public forestland under a timber trust proposal, is based on a plan worked up by Stahl. Environmentalists object to the plan, citing reasons ranging from the effects logging could have on Eugene’s water supply to the sheer amount of public land that they say would be turned into industrial-type tree farms.  

Stahl says that the intellectual inspiration for his version of the plan “is found in a number of threads stretching back many years,” and gives as his inspiration a tree plantation versus native forest split in New Zealand. He says he studied trusts in college as well. “Grandparents are fond of setting up such trusts for their irresponsible grandchildren to protect assets from being squandered,” Stahl says. 

O’Toole has been working on a trust plan for a long time, too. He testified before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in favor of a timber trust back in 1995. He suggested a trust plan again in a Seattle Times opinion piece in 1997. In 1998, Stahl and O’Toole presented the trust plan, along with several other plans to reform the Forest Service, at a conference put on by the Sierra Nevada Alliance. The plan, part of the “Forest Options Group Proposal,” is laid out on the Thoreau Institute website. Stahl and O’Toole serve on the TI’s board of directors. 

“It’s classic free-market libertarianism, with a twist,” says Oregon Wild’s Doug Heiken of O’Toole’s trust plan, which calls for fees on things like recreation and biodiversity. Heiken says it works better if the government owns and manages the forests to produce public goods, “which are under-produced on private lands, because there’s no profit in clean water and biodiversity.”

O’Toole is the author of the 1988 book Reforming the Forest Service. He also wrote The Best-Laid Plans, in which he “calls for repealing federal, state and local planning laws,” according to the Cato website, and Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It, in which he criticizes mass transit.