The High Cost of Delaying Needed Reforms: The Wedge Pack and Coal

By Bob Ferris

Thirty years ago or so FRAM oil filters used to run TV commercials featuring a mechanic named Jerry and a tag line: You can pay me now or you can pay me later.  The take away message being that it cost a lot less to take proactive or preventative measures than to fix the consequences of that neglect later.  This commercial was on my mind this weekend as I thought about two issues of importance to Cascadia Wildlands: the Wedge Pack tragedy and the Coos Bay Coal Terminal.  What?

While the Wedge Pack issue is certainly about wolves, it is likely more about management priorities for public lands and the total societal costs of public lands ranching.  This latter element is a story of the continued expectations of the privileged and their allies to receive massive taxpayer subsidies in an economy that has the rest of us struggling for a scrap of the much promoted and rarely achieved American dream.  How much in subsidies?  A ten year old estimate on the cost to tax payers of public lands ranching put the total costs somewhere in the $500 million $1 billion range per year—from a full-cost accounting perspective.  
This subsidy along with associated monies to USDA Wildlife Services to control predators on public lands so that cattle largely fattened at tax payer expense could also be protected from animals that are owned and enjoyed by the public, has been fought by a myriad of groups and campaigns for my entire 30 year career in conservation and beyond.  Push back for grazing fee reform has come from obvious sources such as the various cattleman’s associations as well as unexpected groups like bankers in the Southwest concerned that any changes in public lands grazing would impact the long-term value of public lands leases and therefore the strength of their extensive loan collateral from ranchers.  
The most recent push for reform came in 2011 and was denied not because it was felt that ranchers were paying what they should but rather that the federal government lacked adequate resources to deal with the issue.   In other words, they felt it made more sense to keep paying for the engine overhauls because they did not have the money to pay for the oil filter.  
This false economy and illogic is particularly galling when we see statements in the paper from Len McIrvin of the Diamond M ranch talking about “his” ranch—which is actually in large part “our” ranch (i.e., public lands).  If he is so bothered by our wolves on our public lands perhaps he should be asked to seek other pastures in the future.  He strikes me as a lot like someone who has lived a long time in a rent controlled apartment and is complaining to the landlord that he does not have a trash compactor or free-cable.  Where is the gratitude and cooperative attitude that should be the natural result of the below-cost grazing he and his family have enjoyed for years?  Amazing.
And then there is Powder River Basin coal.  Here the maintenance neglect can be thought of as a forgotten faucet that was once turned on to water a garden and was never turned off.  A little over 20 years ago during Poppa Bush’s administration low BTU coal from the Powder River Basin (PRB) was the coal that no one wanted.  Low in energy and far away from everything the coal sat in the ground.  So Bush’s administration de-certified the area as a coal production region thus removing many environmental and fiscal constraints.  Now 41% of our nation’s coal comes from the PRB.  And still the faucet is left full open.
What does that mean?  It means that we are selling leases to coal companies—many of them foreign—for prices as low as twenty-five cents a ton for a product that in the last year has sold for anywhere from $80-$120 per ton.  Guesses at actual market value are closer to $5 per ton.  That means the proposed Coos Bay coal terminal at capacity (10 million tons per year) could be getting roughly $40 million annually in discounts.  So the Port of Coos Bay’s claim that the coal port will provide $24 million annually in economic activity seems fairly hollow when we realize that the American tax pay will be giving up $16 million dollars more in value to get that revenue.  No quite a great deal.  
As two of the beneficiaries of that “gift” are a Japanese and a Korean firms—the latter being controlled by the Korean government—we are not only needlessly draining away our national wealth but get the added “benefit” of enabling and enriching competing economies so they will be better able to displace manufacturing jobs here in the US.  And then there are climate change and ocean acidification implications of enabling anybody to continue on this energy pathway—another, more serious example of the danger and consequences of neglected change or modernization.  
My point here with both these examples is: We all need to be paying more attention and getting active, because the cost of our neglect and inattention are always way more expensive as time progresses.  Join us and get engaged—help us keep it wild.

3 thoughts on “The High Cost of Delaying Needed Reforms: The Wedge Pack and Coal

  1. Jim Wickens says:

    Hi there,
    I am a producer with Link tv and the Ecologist in the UK ( We are preparing a story on the wolf delisting controversy in the Rockies, and I found this article by you above. I see you are making a link between coal in a Peabody mine and wolves…are there any links do you think between coal mine expansion / existing practices of coal in places like Wyoming and the wolf hunt? I had never thought there was a link and would be interested to hear if you believe there is one?
    Many thanks and I look forward to hearing from you.
    Jim Wickens

  2. bob says:

    Dear Jim,

    Thanks for your question. The link here is not a direct link between wolves and coal but rather the link between the behaviors of not being diligent with our management so that we end up dealing with a larger and more expensive issue later. It is an issue of benign neglect in some instances and an artifact of our corporation-driven political system that allows these inefficiencies to continue.

    If you need information on the wolf delisting and other related topics we are happy to provide that information or help you get access to folks with the information that you need.

    –Bob Ferris

  3. Reverend Jane Eagle says:

    Excellently written article, and sadly ignored by taxpayers who are in a hurry to get to the mall. The question also arises of why we are continuing these destructive extraction practices (which pale in comparison to the Keystone XL pipeline) which cost us so much more than we will get back. I also question why the US continues to buy oil from the Middle East, where we wage wars in order to continue its availability, engendering terrorists and enemies of "the State"…when we could EASILY transition to solar, wind, biofuels from sustainable hemp…we could heal the economy (think of all the jobs created!) and the planet at the same time. Humanity is in a downward spiral, and it seems we will have to hit bottom before we pay attention.

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