An Interview with Mark Vande Pol

Copyright 2005, by Sunni Maravillosa
Originally posted here at Sunni's Salon, in July 2005.



SUNNI: Hi, Mark; how are you today?

MARK: Burnt. I've been hacking up trees that we had taken down for power line clearance. It was 102° out there this afternoon.

SUNNI: Ouch. Why did the trees need to be hacked?

MARK: Annual power line maintenance on a rural property can cost the power company as much as a year's worth of electricity. The whole thing has become something of a scam, because the California Public Utilities Commission allows the power company to add a direct markup to the line maintenance cost. So they just love environmentalist-inspired regulations that favor expensive trimming but the power company has to go for the lowest bidder to do the work. The result is neither safe line corridors nor healthy trees (I had several trees die from the trimming and had to remove several obvious hazard trees the trimmers couldn't touch because of the rules). I'm doing what I can to minimize that expense to inspections only. It's not worth having them do the work once one recognizes the total cost of dealing with the consequences.

In general, I plant low fuel-value native shrubs in those corridors and then remove the trees under the lines once the shrubs are established. This keeps marginally competent tree crews and the weeds they bring with them off the property. It's a process that may take another five years.

SUNNI: Just like the bureaucrats, bringing in weeds . . . [laughs] I'm a little embarrassed to admit this, Mark, but in preparing for our interview, I realized I've forgotten how we met! Was it at Liberty Forum? Or before that?

MARK: We met at a Liberty Forum discussion of property rights issues not long after LF first started, but I believe you got the book through the Future of Freedom Foundation.

SUNNI: Are you still participating at Liberty Forum? If so, how are things there? I've pretty much given up on forums altogether ...

MARK: It's been a long time since I've posted there. The place became something of a Zionist/Anti-Zionist battleground. There are some thoughtful posters there on confined subjects, but as a news/discussion site it's become too polluted with people who have more interest in cussing than civil discourse.

SUNNI: Sounds about the same, then. What would you like Salon readers to know about you, Mark? What kinds of things are you involved in?

MARK: I'm just a guy who was working a normal hectic engineering job, raising two kids, and trying to take care of his land, who then got involved in the local environmental battle. When I found out how massively corrupt and destructive the regulatory system is, I ended up dedicating my life to doing something about it on a fundamental level. So, I quit my job and wrote a book.

On promotional tours, when I ran into the usual, "OK, let's see you do it first," I came to the conclusion that such is what I would have to do. So, we use our land as if it was an R&D lab for reasons I discuss in the book. I am currently doing research to improve the tools with which habitat restoration is done -- that's the engineer in me. Beyond tinkering with hardware or learning about plants, such includes integrating an invention with new process development and even business models. I cannot afford to have my land be a bad example, so I spend a lot of time with various habitat restoration projects, the results of which have been astonishing. We're up to 316 plant species -- two thirds of them native -- on a mere 14 acres. I take care of another six acres or so to protect our property. They all have to be identified, photographed, documented, and therewith I am building a base of information on how to grow, manage, or kill as appropriate. Those non-native plants now represent less than 1% of the vegetation, although if I quit controlling them they would take over again in as little as three years.

I'd describe myself as a very different kind of conservative. While I am an absolute defender of the sanctity of private property rights on a level far beyond the usual understanding, I also hold that the responsibilities of land ownership are equally understated. When discussing property rights, most conservatives, unfortunately, are so used to being defensive about whether or not they are causing any damage that they can't see the opportunities in innovative uses of the assets they possess. Unfortunately, many of those options have been effectively stolen by regulatory government and its chief beneficiaries: Park Services, conservancies, land trusts, and open space districts, effectively a government monopoly in the land tourism and entertainment business. It's got to be fixed.

SUNNI: Absolutely, but before we get too much farther, I'm intrigued with the idea of you creating new tools! Outside of a kitchen, I'm pretty inept with tools, but they fascinate me. Would it be giving too much away to talk a little about that work?

MARK: First, identify the need. I'll go with weeding as an example. Weeding in nature is far more complex than most people realize. Some plants come out by hand, some require tools, some require protective gear, some take a very delicate sense of touch, some you can't kill under any circumstances mechanically, and can only be killed with an herbicide. Sourgrass -- Oxalis pes-caprea -- is a good example. The required herbicides vary by species and application (sprays are dilute while cut-and-treat stub applications are at full strength). Some blow or pop seed so quickly that you can't afford to come back later with the right tool. Further, you might need communications or documentation equipment to identify the plant, record it, and come back to the same spot: GPS, PDA, notepad, camera, flags to mark something -- GPS often doesn't work. Then there's personal protection -- you know, bears, pigs, mountain lions, wolves… The "right tool" often doesn't exist and even if you had all the "right" tools our land is so rugged -- some of it is near vertical -- that you can't get a vehicle there or carry everything, especially when a long way from home.

Can you imagine the OSHA rules and equipment necessary to keep unionized government Weed Abatement Technologists safe? The meetings would never end. If I were the usual "green entrepreneur," I'd invent a few things and get them written into the regulations.

As far as carrying all that stuff goes, one option is to modify a dog pack. The dog goes high on the personal protection list too. I keep Dutch shepherds because they're hardy, have a high drive for work, they're big enough, their hips aren't so flaky, and the coat is short enough to find a tick. They've also got a bit more feral dog in them than most breeds, which keeps them alert for trouble and sensible in a confrontation. I've been trying to interest a local trainer in developing a specialized program for rural landowners.

Simple things are often tough to design: One is a weed bag that's tough but isn't klunky in brush, doesn't pick up burrs, opens with one hand but closes itself, takes cheap inserts to drop off when they fill, stays on your thigh and doesn't drop anything when you bend over. You can detach it if you need to get it close to the plant (to improve transfer efficiency or to avoid dropping seed). Where the weed fork goes I haven't decided but a hip clip looks like the best option so far.

My current project is an automated portable plant-rearing system that allows nurseries to concentrate on propagation and transfers most of the growth onsite in native soil using leased equipment. Nurseries charge a lot for potting soils (trucking), real estate (shade houses), and labor (moving large plants around) to produce a product that isn't that appropriate to a plant in the wild (potting soil dries out more completely in late summer and the organics disappear, leaving a dry void). I'm thinking that the system would improve nursery profitability and throughput while reducing restoration costs to the landowner.

SUNNI: Wow, Mark. You were kind enough to send me a review copy of Natural Process, which, I'm -- again -- embarrassed to admit, still reading. After we moved, some books went missing for a while and it was among them ... As I recall, it's a presentation of a completely private alternative to the current insanity masquerading as environmental law. Is that a fair description?

MARK: In part. It contains the environmental, political, and economic justifications for why much of regulatory government should be reverted to private sector risk management. It has a way of developing objective pricing and legal descriptions by which to trade in contracts for the use of natural assets. It outlines the principles of the proposed system and describes in detail how its components could work versus their current alternatives. Finally, it details a legal strategy to get there and raises the stakes in the process by showing where the current system is headed and why. The book is meant to get at the core of the technical, managerial, economic, and legal problems that got us where we are and what is at stake if we don't gradually dissolve the need for regulatory government. It is therefore long and dense, with a wide variety of writing styles and topics. Some of it is technical. Some of it is theoretical. Some of it is funny. If you couldn't laugh about this stuff, you'd go nuts.

SUNNI: Yah, it is technical in places, although not as much as other books I've read. Maybe I've not gotten to the really heavy-duty material yet. You don't seem to use a lot of jargon, which tends to make a book harder to understand for non-experts. I have been enjoying your sense of humor, which sometimes reveals itself in the most unexpected places. It's a great touch! How did you come to write the book?

MARK: It started with the sense that there was something fundamentally wrong about environmental rules in our county, Santa Cruz, California. Environmental rules made no sense when it came to helping people restore their land. I had just completed building a house as an owner-builder. The permit process was an expensive joke that did little to assure better construction or lower impacts but they were great for bureaucrats, consultants (former bureaucrats), and selected suppliers cashing in on a local monopoly. The regulations hampered people who simply wanted to improve the condition of their forests. Meanwhile the county kept bringing in more weeds with their road maintenance equipment than from any other source.

So upon the prodding of some friends, I foolishly signed up for the local Agenda21 Biodiversity and Ecosystem Management Roundtable. I was operating under the mistaken belief that, because it was a "consensus process", I could get these people to face the mess they were making. Almost two years after the draft had been submitted, people who had never attended a single public meeting had totally changed the document, in secret. It was presented to me for my signature as if it was a done deal. There was some haggling that improved it somewhat, but I still refused to sign it. So they added my name to the list of contributors and fraudulently published it as a consensus! The county had agreed, in advance, to accept the product and write it into law, sight unseen.

I had studied the entire Federal Convention debate in college, under an iconic professor of government, Dr. William Allen, now at Michigan State. So I knew the frightening potential of a system of government like the Agenda21, under the aegis of the United Nations, in which elected representatives rubber-stamped the output of hidden committees loaded with pre-selected bureaucrats and activists.

Now, I hadn't become an engineer just because I liked inventing. I did well enough at it to create several novel processes and earn a couple of patents, but what I wanted to learn from engineering was to understand in an intimate way how wealth is created. I saw the lack of that knowledge in America's political leadership to be a serious problem about which I wanted to do something. So, about three years after the Agenda21 debacle, when I got to the end of a long and difficult, but intensely rewarding and interesting project, my wife -- a saint -- looked at me and said, "If you are ever going to do with your life what you always wanted to do, now is the time to do it." So, I quit the job, started to write, and ended up educating the kids at home -- a great decision.

Because I was focusing upon a problem, the book naturally started as a polemic, but in the first few drafts, I hadn't really created anything novel. Then I got some advice from Randal O'Toole after he had read a painful early draft. He said (I'm paraphrasing), "Yes, people do need to read it, but unless you offer a solution, nobody is going to read it." That's kind of like waving a red flag in front of an engineer (we're a compulsive lot when it comes to cracking problems). So, that's what you do. I'm proud to say that copies have been delivered to the White House by a former US Senator.

SUNNI: In its preface, you provide some background as to how you became an environmentalist, but almost none on how you became pro-freedom. Care to enlighten us on that some?

MARK: I had always been a risk taker, philosopher, and something of the rugged individualist. So my temperament was predisposed toward freedom, but that isn't enough to explain the transformation that occurred while writing the book. It was the wrenching experience of having confronted mountains of hard data that showed how "environmental protection" had been used to carefully manipulate the conversion of the local timber market to residential real estate for a period of over thirty years. It was political corruption on a massive scale.

Early in the process, families who had cared for their land for over a hundred years were being forced to log or sell in order to pay property taxes, while taking the political blame for doing it from the adjacent suburban users of those property taxes (not to mention cheap redwood lumber). Later, zoning laws took the next cut in land value mandating huge minimum subdivision acreage requirements, as much as 40 acres per parcel -- in other words, if you had 110 acres, the most you could make of it was two home sites. That kept the price of the total parcel up because of the reduced supply, which maintained tax revenue, but minimized the development potential to the landowner. It also forced more use of marginal sites with higher environmental hazards rather than higher densities in optimal locations with lower hazards. In the '80s and '90s, increasingly-dubious timber regulations -- some illegally titled as zoning law -- slowly made that purchase price even cheaper than it might have otherwise been because regulations had rendered the timber on the land of almost no value. They had also removed the only means to fund expensive land maintenance while neighbors in those new houses were demanding use of adjacent timberland for uncompensated entertainment purposes. Building codes, especially septic regulations, made using smaller parcels very difficult. The only thing left to do with big parcels was get out entirely and sell to a developer with the connections necessary to get permits. It should be no surprise who was behind those zoning laws and regulations. It was local developers and the construction industry cashing in on a closed game which paid more taxes than did timber.

I had gone through the usual loop of thinking that better laws would fix the problem. But, when I saw how deeply even local government, supposedly the most transparent and accessible level of government, was so corrupt, so deviously manipulated, in ways that even the politicians immersed in the game did not understand, that is when I finally understood just how dangerous collective control of private property really is. As I learned more about the global scale of this resource manipulation racket, particularly as regards the UN Agenda21, it was shattering.

I wept, for my country and for my witless assent to the very same corrupt belief systems, the purpose for which I had since discovered. For the first time in thirty years, I prayed for an answer. The answers came, in bits and pieces. Theory gave way to example. After that, the hard part was getting at the questions by which to make the solutions realistic to implement. The process took nearly four years. As I said, my wife is a saint.

SUNNI: And you're amazingly persistent! I think a lot of people are casual environmentalists -- that is, they enjoy nature to some degree, but don't see themselves as part of today's environmentalism movement. It seems to me that you said somewhere in the book that today's environmentalists are pretty far removed from, say, the founders of the Sierra Club or Greenpeace. If my memory on that is accurate, how have they deviated from the early environmental movement, in your opinion?

MARK: That's not what I meant at all. What I was pointing out is that the environmental movement over the last fifty years has deviated from its John Muir/Teddy Roosevelt/CCC conservationist heritage and has become a self-aggrandizing religion of misanthropic avarice operating on the belief that anything humans do in nature must be harmful. Environmentalists, especially in resource agencies, are so afraid of doing any harm that they tie themselves in knots while obvious damage of mandated neglect continues to progress, too often on a scale so enormous as to make whatever efforts they finally take totally futile. Somehow, they spend an awful lot of money while they're at it.

SUNNI: Sorry, Mark, I phrased my question poorly, but I think you answered it okay anyway. I meant that the leaders of today's environmental organizations have strayed from that heritage, as you said. That probably leads people like me, who love nature and who love to see people working their land responsibly, not to even try to get involved -- I know I think it'd be a total waste of time, because of my perception that "hard core" environmentalists won't listen to someone like me who questions their dogma, let alone someone who espouses private, market-based solutions rather than more state interference. So it seems the "casual environmentalists", as I called them, are much quieter right now, but there are a lot of them out there. At least, I hope there are ...

MARK: You've touched on something important, the way often dishonestly portrayed positions within a technical debate alienates people from their accountability in a democratically controlled system. Because the uninvolved suspect the activists on either side are blowing smoke for reasons they cannot fathom, and know they don't know enough about environmental issues to be making decisions, they check out of the debate, usually with a bias toward one side or the other. That means they don't know what they have at stake in the way environmental activism affects their lives. If they knew the cost in transportation, energy, housing, etc, they'd be outraged, never mind the environmental damage that's been done. For example, just the money to change buried gasoline tanks in California from steel to plastic was enough to pay for full tuition for every kid enrolled in a state college or university. Oil companies wanted that change because it put mom and pop station owners out of business. Oil companies and their "environmental activist" stooges in the Natural Resources Defense Council advocated for MTBE to be mandated into the gasoline, even though the oil companies knew the stuff would leak through those new plastic tanks. Now the public is paying even more to clean that up too, whether in taxes or higher fuel costs. The problem isn't that oil companies are evil; it's that government has the power to specify their products and absolve the producers of responsibility for the consequences, just as Congress indemnified the producers of MTBE in advance of its introduction.

SUNNI: Wow, Mark. No wonder we casual environmentalists feel in over our heads. So, how did we get left behind, do you think? Was it a dilution of the ideas as the movement became popular? Or were there some problems with the original environmental movement when it sprang up in the 60s?

MARK: Environmental regulatory perfidy was working in the halls of excessive power long before any public awakening in the 1960s. As you probably read in the book, the Congressional Record on the ratification of an environmental treaty, The Convention on Nature Protection and Wildlife Preservation in the Western Hemisphere [PDF file] received no recorded vote, no record of a quorum, and a cover letter from Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, that lied outright about the virtually unlimited (and unconstitutional) regulatory powers it emplaced in both the Congress and administrative government. That was in 1941.

While campus leadership developed in the 60s, the popular movement really got going in the '70s. It was set up by very wealthy people with an interest in using government to control access to resources for fun and profit. They set up charitable foundations posing as environmental charities. Those supply grants to universities to generate useful science, more grants to activist groups posing as the public, and more grants to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) full of lawyers with which to bring suit against agencies with every reason to lose those suits because they get a non-discretionary budget to "comply with the order" as a part of the usual consent decree. It is akin to a vertically integrated, tax-exempt resource racketeering system operating on much the same economic principles that date from the days of the European mercantilists.

Remember that when Lenin first took over Russia, one of his first moves was land use control in the name of scientific environmental protection. The policy was articulated in two documents, On Land and On Forests, with goals, means, and justifications very similar to the current Wildlands Project here in the USA. With those tools, Lenin successfully implemented land use policies that starved 22 million recalcitrant Kulaks. So I guess it's no surprise to see environmentalism first crop up in America among the Stalinists within the Roosevelt Department of State, and then surface at the universities in the '60s as a tentacle of cultural Marxism.

SUNNI: Wow. I knew a little about the land control in the Soviet Union, but very little. So, at the risk of going conspiracy theory in some readers' eyes, do you think it's a coincidence that there are parallels here?

MARK: It is a legitimate question how much of what the environmental movement does is for purely ideological reasons as opposed to manipulation. My take is that it's both, with much of the latter arising out of normal human opportunism. Still, to assume that people in power don't conspire would be plainly silly; it is after all, a time-tested way to stay on top at relatively low risk -- until the system collapses. I'm not one who believes in one grand conspiracy, but rather more of a feeding frenzy among those with means who believe that it's the only way to survive in business while they fan their egos at cocktail parties. Still, that it was set up the way it was, when one considers who was driving it, and then you see the games being played now which are CLEARLY profit driven, you can't help but think that there were some very smart people planning ahead. Orwell warned us explicitly of such a conspiracy between the left and the capitalist class in his first book, Homage to Catalonia, written in 1933. Wait just a second while I pull up that quote ...

Between the Communists and those who claim to stand to the Left of them there is a real difference. The Communists hold that Fascism can be beaten by alliance with sections of the capitalist class (the Popular Front); their opponents hold that this maneuver simply gives Fascism new breeding-grounds. The question has got to be settled; to make the wrong decision may be to land ourselves in for centuries of semi-slavery.

Personally, I think the question has been settled: the financiers of the left have been instituting totalitarianism since the days of the Frankfurt School and the Spartakusbund in pre-WWII Germany; but its latter day useful idiots quite apparently haven't figured that out.

SUNNI: An environmentalist-engineer who knows his history -- you're proving more than I bargained for, Mark! Do you think there's any way to reach out to environmentalists of today, to convince them that consumption doesn't necessarily equal devastation, or to get them to even listen to free-market alternatives such as yours? Or will it take a serious free-market environmental counter-movement to get them to pay attention?

MARK: I think it's a three-step process. First, at every opportunity, point out the scale and depth of habitat degradation at the hands of environmental agencies complaining of a chronic lack of funds. No industry has ever had the power to make environmental mistakes on the scale of which government is uniquely capable. No industry would ever load a job with such extravagant overhead. It may become increasingly difficult to get that story out to the general public when public lands are closed off to all human entry as is proposed in the Wildlands Project (whose "connecting corridors" are virtually guaranteed to be conduits for pestilence on an unprecedented scale).

Second: If we can get that story across, show them how they're being played for chumps by the very big businesses they said were the problem in the first place.

Then, draw them to a solution: show them the potential for an honest buck as a small business in a free enterprise alternative system.

SUNNI: I suppose we shouldn't go farther without me asking you about your reactions to the recent Kelo decision by the Supreme Court. What's your take on that?

MARK: Most people think Kelo is about the Fifth Amendment, but the original interpretation of the Bill of Rights didn't apply to the state and local governments at all, except to defer all powers not enumerated in the Constitution to the states or the people. Thus the state power to take property by eminent domain goes as far back as the early 19th century barge canals in the East and Midwest and really got cooking with the railroads. Abraham Lincoln made his name as a lawyer rigging precisely such deals. The results were that Eastern investors got rich in the name of "the public good" while rural landowners and small land speculators got "just compensation" -- if, and only if, their respective states held to that principle; often it was a lot worse than that. Thus the only thing different about Kelo as far as the original understanding of the Fifth Amendment is concerned, is that it involves people's houses.

SUNNI: Your observation of Easterners getting rich under early eminent domain takings is somewhat relevant today still, don't you think, Mark? It seems to me that many people who live in the West -- the real West, not trendy towns like Aspen or Jackson Hole -- see the environmental movement as increasingly a move by people who don't live here, and agencies with offices in D.C., to control their lands, when they've never even set foot on them, and can't possibly know the land with the intimacy a resident owner has.

MARK: Absolutely it's relevant, particularly as regards Eastern control of the Senate and the use of treaty law to effect environmental regulatory powers. Many of the same Eastern families driving the land grab policy in the West today were doing it a hundred fifty years ago with easy access to federal lands. Sadly, the gentrification of the West we are seeing now has a bunch of those same urbanites buying up ranch land with no idea how or inclination to manage it properly.

Back to Kelo for a moment. The legal problem essential to Kelo is the Supreme Court's Orwellian selective incorporation doctrine as regards the Fourteenth Amendment. It is "selective" in that "equal protection" of specific "privileges and immunities" listed in the Bill of Rights applies only to those cases as determined by the whim of the Supreme Court by how they read the tea leaves in the first ten amendments. As the resulting federal powers have broadened, people have become so used to expecting an intrusive Supreme Court to protect individual rights that they expected Fourteenth Amendment privileges and immunities to include Fifth Amendment protection of individuals from local government takings. In fact, it never has done so before, preferring to leave matters of property rights to the states. Thus, this Court's majority opinion interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment as regards the Fifth is consistent with the selective incorporation doctrine over the last eighty years. The same has been true of the Second Amendment, which should scare the hell out of any gun rights advocate.

My opinion on this conundrum is that the powers Fourteenth Amendment granted to the Federal government (to protect individual rights via the courts) have their perverse consequences: People rightly don't pay as much attention to their state and local representatives when they know that every law is subject to the very slow, expensive, remote, and seemingly indomitable powers exerted by Federal courts. The mere existence of the judicial option inhibits self-government: Everybody's hands are tied, nobody can make a decision, and your vote doesn't matter much anyway because some judge can toss out the law. In that regard, the selective incorporation doctrine of the 14th Amendment is an evil. It may have imposed corrective measures for structural racism in the States, but one can't say race relations are all that much better because of them, while the Feds have gained powers they rightly shouldn't have. The people should have paid more attention to their own State laws. Now, with Kelo, some people surely will as we have already seen in several states. So, in that respect, Kelo is not all bad news.

SUNNI: Yes, I'm seeing indications of that refocusing on state law happening. But wouldn't it have been better for the Court to have refused to hear the case -- keeping it a matter of state law, rather than taking it federal? Their ruling really was a severe blow against the Bill of Rights. And I just read somewhere that the Institute for Justice has filed for a re-hearing of Kelo at the Supreme Court ...

MARK: It was a blow in that the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment property rights advocates anticipated, extending Federal protection of property rights to individuals, wasn't adopted. It effectively cemented the status quo ante, particularly common here in California. Now, I'm not happy at all about the consequences of the ruling, but I'm cautious where desirable ends are pursued by dubious means. We already have too much federal power expressed through the courts and need to make local government more meaningful to voters, else they'll keep asking for control of other people's land, expecting there won't be any adverse consequences when it comes to their houses. While it's true that federal power has addressed injustices visited by some states, it is also true that we don't optimize the blessings of freedom by competition because federal mandates so heavily constrain deviations from established norms by local governments.

SUNNI: Good points, Mark. Time and again in Natural Process, you point out that individual property owners are often the best stewards of the land, especially when compared with the EPA and other government bureaucrats whose diktats are arbitrary and inflexible. And that makes perfect sense: it's the owner's nest, so to speak, so they've a vested interest in keeping the land decent. How, especially in this country, did we shift from personal stewardship to idiotic regulations controlling land management?

MARK: As opposed to "how" -- which is a very long story -- let's stick with "why". Regulations are a very profitable way to manipulate the market for those with the political clout to manipulate the government. The power to regulate is the power to put your competitors out of business. Regulations reflect the interests of the politically dominant and not necessarily the benefit of the asset at risk. Once agencies gain control, usually via the courts, they are then constrained by the means they used to take control: laws supposedly precluding harm to the asset at risk. The precautionary principle then mandates that no harm can be done, when inaction is often the worst thing anyone could do! The bureaucrats are protecting but one element in a complex system of competing risks with continued funding justified by continuing problems! Finally, virtually nobody in a bureaucracy is fired for incompetence. That's why the diktats of the resource agencies are inflexible.

It's no way to run an airline, so expecting it to work efficiently for something as complex as managing natural habitat is plainly silly.

SUNNI: Agreed. At the risk of getting me started on the precautionary principle, your answer highlights some interrelated, tricky subtleties of land management. The definition of "doing no harm" changes, of course, depending upon whose context is being considered. Bureaucrats love to point to their habitat-preserving rules, but ignore the fact that they often destroy property values -- and many people rely on their property as a sort of investment, something to get value from by use or selling it. You've pointed out that doing nothing doesn't equate with doing no harm ... and what's viewed as harm changes, as we understand better the many, complex dynamics at work in the environment. Forest fires used to be considered very bad for forests, until research began to show that they promoted new growth, and in fact do a lot of good. And as you say, these rules address only one element of a complicated system, and often treat it as a static element at that! It's mind-boggling to think of the harm being done now, let alone into the future, as the regulations get amended and expanded, rather than tossed in the dustbin. It's likely to be worse than Internal Revenue Code!

MARK: The Forest Practices Rules here in California are over 1,000 pages long. The state is about to add an overlay of water quality regulations. It's not getting better.

SUNNI: As far as I've seen in your book, the focus is primarily on the land, and plant resources that can be harvested from it -- timber and so forth. What's your view of protecting endangered species, plants and animals? Isn't that rather close to playing God?

MARK: It is rather funny that dogmatic evolutionists are also hell bent on halting natural selection. I'm going to quote Natural Process from a discussion about the Convention on Nature Protection mentioned above:

Nature is a dynamic, adaptive, and competitive system. Under changing conditions, some species go extinct, indeed, for natural selection to operate, they must. The problem arises when human influence grows so powerful that one can always attribute loss of a species to being "within man's control." When humans ask, "Which ones lose?" the treaty specifies, "None," and demands no limit to the commitment to save them all. This of course destroys the ability to act as agent to save anything, much less objectively evaluate how best to expend our resources to do the best that can be done.

SUNNI: Powerful point there, but it doesn't appear that many understand that, Mark. And it's gotta be true that people's emotional attachments to some animals, whether they're attractive, like pandas and tigers, or tasty, like salmon, lead them to want to do something to keep those critters around. Is there something inherently wrong with trying to keep some species around? Or is it simply that laws like the Endangered Species Act are the wrong way -- because they aren't private efforts -- to try to accomplish that goal?

MARK: Actually, I think people do understand the central tenets of natural selection. Unfortunately, they have become so accustomed to holding "endangered species" in a separate context that they don't experience any cognitive dissonance as regards natural selection, simply because communications media tend to shape the things distracted people think about (as well as what they don't think about). Still, even when confronted with that paradox, they rightly prefer conservatism in the face of ignorance. People do exert massive influences on natural habitat, extinction is, after all, permanent, and the issues are complex.

As to emotional attachment to various species, even brilliant people can derive any number of internally logical arguments founded in emotional constructs and there's nothing wrong with that. It's an important aspect of being human and a means by which we have historically dealt with unknowns. It produces diversity in the face of uncertainty which is a tried and true strategy. That points out yet another thing wrong with a global orthodoxy. Even so, people desperate to prove how "sensitive" they are via their ability to care for the seemingly insignificant show themselves more than willing to get all worked up over some small variation in tarweed, a species that is so dynamic, rugged, varied, and adapted to disturbance that it is in no danger of extinction unless it is protected from any disturbance.

This is where markets that measure the interactions of species and integrate into the decision matrix the recovery cost discounted by the probability of the need for restoration versus purchasing contracts for use of offsetting habitat come in. That gets people acting logically on logical elements without having to confront the total complexity of the problem. If a species gets scarce, the price offered for restoration or offset then goes up. If no one will bid the contract to protect it because the allocated budget can only support other recovery efforts with a better chance of success, that defuses emotional concerns as well.

SUNNI: It amused me to see that you mention ISO standards in your chapter Getting Off on Good Behavior. I've a friend in a manufacturing industry, and regularly hear of ISO idiocies -- rules that fill notebooks and codify practices, but don't help the company produce better, cheaper products. A lot of people tout it as good for industry, but it's still a quasi-government solution, since it derives from the UN through UNESCO. Won't that kind of "solution" be more common if America was to try to move from government-mandated regulation and oversight to privately-written certification standards and compliance testing?

MARK: I once conceived and implemented an ISO 9001 compliant design control system for a medical device manufacturer because they didn't have one and I had a project that was required to comply. It was a very simple, menu-driven system that kept stupid paperwork to a minimum but assured appropriate disclosure on my part as a project manager. That disclosure also assured inescapable management accountability for a decision (which didn't make me popular with management). So I can say with some authority that much of what your friend experiences is, to some degree, probably self-inflicted on the part of his industry.

ISO scares the hell out of managers, so, they usually hire consultants or internal specialists to help them qualify. The consultants, if they're smart, make the system convoluted because that makes for the gift that keeps on giving. Once those precedents are set, they become the standards the ISO auditors look for. The whole thing produces a paper trail that isn't that productive for anybody but the lawyers who come in to sue when -- not if -- something goes wrong anyway -- which shouldn't be surprising seeing as everybody is forced into obsessing about compliance instead of focusing on the product. Some global corporations love ISO; it makes the rules the same no matter where you locate. It makes purchasing compliant parts and sub-assemblies far less of a headache and makes it possible to do discovery on one that provides a bad product. But there is a dark side to that love affair as well: ISO gives a big advantage to big companies because of economies of scale in the paperwork and legal business. Doesn't that sound familiar?

SUNNI: [chuckling] All too awfully familiar. But do you think it's really the case that we need such institutionalized oversight to standardize items? My friend and I were talking about this just the other day; he was telling me how crappy regular screws are in general, and that crosspoint screws are better, because of that small design improvement to the screw head. I asked him why the older kind are still used, if crosspoint is so superior, and his answer was, essentially, "Standardization". Surely that dynamic is still in play ... it probably even plays out faster, with improved communication and supply lines.

MARK: Standardization has become less important than it once was, just as converting America to the metric system was eventually dropped. Computers make it so easy to deal with the differences that the cost of converting all those English unit aircraft wasn't worth the ease of calculations and common standards. Further, the trend toward automation, "build to order," "mass customization," "just in time," minimum inventories, and fantastic improvements in reliability have minimized the need for transferable spare parts. Where we used to need standardized bolts as part of maintaining things, new assembled products are so much better and so cheap that we just toss the old and buy new instead of needing boxes of bolts with which to do repairs. If you do need parts, buy them from the manufacturer off the web and get them by FedEx the next day. You then don't need to care so much about standardized bolts.

SUNNI: In my education I spent a lot of time learning research methods, and using them in the research lab. Later, while teaching undergrad research methods, I saw how little of the scientific process my students really understood. The general populace seems to understand it even less. How much do you think the country's declining scientific literacy contributes to the bamboozlement of mainstream Americans? Is there any way to counter that?

MARK: Wow, you don't ask small questions, do you? You do realize you're asking a guy with an opinion on everything? [laughs]

SUNNI: [laughing] No, I don't -- I despise those fluff interviews that stick to shallow, safe topics in 2000 words or fewer. I saw, through your book and our interactions on LF, that you're not just a guy with opinions, but an intelligent, thoughtful person who's doing all kinds of interesting things. I'd much rather delve into that stuff than we just stroke each other's egos, and name-drop, and all that other crap that often passes as an interview. So, fire away with those opinions!

MARK: Tell a friend. Speaking of name dropping, Michael Crichton has proposed solving the politicized science problem by separating scientists in some form of institute isolated from political forces so that they wouldn't be biased (as if that were possible), but he isn't talking about human beings who necessarily bring their biases into their work. Emotion and opinion are integral parts of what gives a human being the drive to do the research in the first place. Our preconceived notions are what generates hypotheses. So given that scientists must to some degree, suffer from subjectivity, it's best that they represent diversified interests and compete to find optimal applications for their ideas. Just as in nature, everybody then finds their niche instead of being forced to conform to a necessarily dangerous orthodoxy.

There's a whole section in the book discussing how politicizing science and deliberate dumbing down have more adverse consequences than just misapplication of technical facts in order to advance an agenda. There is the obvious fact that people doing technical grunt work in the environment aren't intellectually capable of dealing with the complexity -- and tie up highly trained people doing work that they should be able to delegate. But the real damage done by our educational system arises from what we don't know because political orthodoxy precludes research on questions that don't get asked.

Consider atmospheric carbon dioxide. The longer scientists study climate change, the more vanishingly small the human contribution of CO2 appears to be when compared to variations in solar radiance. So what do the scientists do? They argue over the fractions of a degree of that minor human contribution to the exclusion of anything else because that's where the grant money is. Meanwhile, there are real environmental consequences to atmospheric carbon enrichment that don't get studied because government funding goes toward justifying very profitable "free" markets trading carbon credits funded with what is effectively tax money.

As no responsible scientist disputes, added carbon dioxide accelerates the growth of most plants. Farmers obviously consider it a good thing. On the other hand, carbon enrichment has accelerated forest growth by an estimated 65% over what it was in 1900. Carbon dioxide enrichment also reduces drought stress in seedlings so that more of them survive every year. More snow hangs in more tree branches and sublimates into the atmosphere, so less water reaches the ground and gets into the water table. Later in the summer, more water competition among more trees releases far less water into streams. That dries up streams and kills often endangered juvenile fish, not to mention competing plants that supply food to animals that don't eat trees.

140 million acres of National Forests are now so overstocked that they are at risk of catastrophic fire. The Federal government proposes to spend $100 billion to treat but a small fraction of what could be -- but for environmental lawsuits (sponsored by the tax-exempt "charitable" foundations of families with investments in the petrochemical energy business) -- vast amounts of biomass fuel. It affects the price we pay for housing, water, chemicals, and energy, while huge catastrophic fires destroy soils, and water quality. Those consequences of atmospheric carbon enrichment and socialized forests are huge. Nobody says anything.

SUNNI: No kidding nobody's saying anything about all that!

MARK: The problem is that with the ability to control access to resources the financial stakes are so high that grant funding reflects the interests of those contributing the money. Grant funding for politicized science thus kills the diversity of technical approaches we need, for exactly the same reasons we need biodiversity: applicability to a wide variety of circumstances, newly discovered problems, and unpredictable change.

The only way to counter the source of that problem is to devolve the public preference for government schooling, even at the university level. Public schooling trains people to be narrow specialists and to look to authority for the answers -- in other words it trains them not to think outside the box. People have been trying to fix it for fifty years. It can't be fixed. The hard part is to get out of this mess without going through a collapse so that the kids currently enrolled in the system don't have to suffer the consequences.

As home educators have grown in number, they have been organizing into loosely knit education cooperatives that point to a new form of public education: decentralized, customer-oriented learning networks, using customized products designed to meet individual interests and abilities. That promises what 21st century education could become: a multi-disciplinary market of customized learning services. We're already starting to see this transformation. Software and curriculum companies are finding a growing market of home school customers committed to gaining competitive advantages. Colleges and universities are offering online degrees because they need superior students to assure productive graduates. Superior teachers could get rich transmitting their ideas and methods to a mass market over the internet.

So how can home education benefit children now in public schools? The state can use private and home education markets as if each school was an R&D laboratory developing and testing learning tools and services for future service providers. Parents on public school boards could select from among a range of guaranteed products that the State would fund. Insurance on the guarantee would cover the cost of remedial education if the product fails to meet warranted performance. It is a gradual transformation, from experimenting on our children with untested academic theories, to contracting for innovative tools and methods that have been proven in the marketplace. Of course, any company offering such a guarantee would demand control over how it is delivered. Most would have to rely upon their own employees trained in the methods they offer; else they could not be forced to warrant their product ... It's a way of privatizing the schools from within, subject by subject, contract by contract, child by individual child, meeting individual needs. You read it here first.

SUNNI: A very interesting idea, Mark; I'll have to think about that. Back on scientists for a moment, the fog-drip article on your Natural Process web site has a great example of a scientist who's an expert in a specific area being used to push an agenda that his expertise doesn't cover. It seems that happens quite frequently. That, along with the differing opinions scientists have on opposing theories, has to add to the mistrust of scientists ...

MARK: For good reason too. The real problem is that, in a world run by lawyers where decisions are win/lose and can't be changed easily because of precedent, you can't find people who'll pay to do science without an eye to winning a case. Never mind developing a technical policy that can manage dynamic competing risks as appropriate to an enormous variety of individual circumstances with numerous unknowns. Paradoxically, neither can you allow scientists to do whatever they want, because we do have a need to focus research into applications that fund the research. Markets can deal with both problems, but somehow the government thinks a "free market" solution should be controlled with political price fixing! They just don't get it.

SUNNI: In my interview with Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey, he offered a pointed, brief indictment of the current agricultural system in the U.S., arguing for organic farming. You mentioned that you garden -- are you an organic proponent too?

MARK: Not entirely. I think their focus on the health of soils is good, particularly the balance of mineral availability. Organic pest prevention measures are also useful. On the other hand, their -- from what I've seen -- increasing tolerance for weeds that spread from the farms into wildlands is intolerable. I also think the health claims for organic vegetables are exaggerated, especially when the history of how they were handled until sold is unknown. Almost all plants produce toxins by which to preclude or inhibit pest attack. The plants increase production of those toxins when they are attacked, which includes being harvested. Some of these natural chemicals are nasty carcinogens that have developed over eons to be as effective as possible (one reason why so many insects are host-specific). Humans eat 5,000 to 10,000 times the amount (by weight) of these natural carcinogens than they do of pesticides, most of which have been specifically developed to do minimal harm to non-target species such as people. My preference is to minimize total toxicity in food from both natural and artificial sources. I would like to see farmers have full access to pesticides priced by the risks they pose, with the extra markup dedicated by the insurer to reducing or offsetting those risks instead of government paperwork -- which InsCert can handle in principle. That motivates investment to make the delivered cost cheaper at lower total risk.

I would also like to see more branding and timestamp labeling on fresh food so that the consumer knows who grew it and where. Mineral assays would be valuable too. That would give market incentive to locally grown, high-quality food. With farmers in the greenbelt and open space businesses (instead of tax supported real estate developers manipulating unproductive open space districts at public expense), we might see food grown closer to the consumer. The internet could help both farmer and consumer by facilitating direct purchase and delivery from suppliers. There are civil defense advantages to this concept. A farmer, rancher, or timber landowner located near an urban area could sell contracts for refuge to urban residents should there be a significant act of war or terrorism. People would know where to go and the landowner would have the supplies on hand to care for them. As I said, I'm looking to create opportunities for landowners where incompetent government monopolies now reign.

SUNNI: Another very interesting idea, Mark. I think many individuals see someone who's an environmentalist and wrongly assumes that the person is also anti-technology, or anti-progress. But recent work reveals all kinds of amazing things about how specific plants and animals fill certain needs -- I'm thinking of phytoremediation as one example. You're clearly a technologically-minded environmentalist. How did you meld the two -- or was that ever even an issue for you?

MARK: Technology produces the wealth that funds care for nature. It also creates lower-impact substitutes for raw materials and could do a lot more to reduce the cost of doing a better job of stewardship. That is where markets can induce the disciplined investment by which to provide net benefit reducing the cost of environmental risk. Anybody can come up with a good widget, but if it's too unsafe the risks can outweigh the benefits. The same can be said of products or processes that affect our surroundings. The important thing is to make an objective measurement of that impact. If the impact is high, either don't do it or reduce the cost of either the impact directly or redressing it later. The development of mining technologies using cemented backfill instead of an open pit illustrates that tradeoff well.

SUNNI: Although I'm interested in environmental issues, I don't have time to keep up with everything I'm interested in and this is an area that's slipped. I'm familiar with some good efforts, such as the Aldo Leopold Foundation. What other private or free-market environmental groups can you recommend to individuals who are interested in getting involved?

MARK: Nobody has time to keep up with everything, which is why direct democracy doesn't work. The more complex the issue, the more that is true. Environmental issues are enormously complex. Confining their scope is a good reason to keep the focus on these issues local. Helping local property rights groups is probably the best way to get involved. They need the help more and are closer to the problems. There are national organizations: Treekeepers, The Wilderness Institute, your state Grange, the Discovery Institute, the Environmental Conservation Organization, the Thoreau Institute, PERC, CEI, National Center for Public Policy Research, and they may be able to help point people toward local groups.

SUNNI: A good list -- I'm familiar with several of those organizations. Mark, your work seems to me to involve the most challenging elements a freedom-lover could face. I mean, in environmentalism you're facing not just the socialist command-and-control mindset, but also one that's much more actively hostile to private solutions. Most environmentalists probably think there's no way a corporate CEO would care about environmental issues unless the force of law was breathing down his neck ... or that developers would always slash, burn, drain, and level the landscape in order to cram houses on a site as tightly as possible unless green space was mandated. How does your message make headway against that? Have you successfully persuaded "watermelons" that market solutions are better than legislated ones?

MARK: As far as the personal challenges are concerned, a twisted sense of humor really helps -- or hurts depending upon the pun. No persuasion of a committed environmentalist can even begin without operating from a position of moral authority from a technical perspective. Without my land recovering as it is, I have none. Without evidence of commitment, having endured the expense, danger, tedium, and frustration of thinning forests, and weeding for months on end, it's hard to get them to listen. The knowledge derived from that work is essential to getting them to understand the tangible reality of what I'm telling them on the technical side, else I will be unable to reveal the way they've been had. There is no substitute for hands-on technical knowledge to convince them that simple preservation won't work; i.e., people have to do something to restore historic damage or prevent future problems. So, if one doesn't understand much about such things, I would go find a volunteer restoration group and work with them for a while.

Once that rapport is established with an activist, it's a matter of getting them to understand what isn't working, who's gaming the system, why, and how they've been used by the very same big corporations they decry. It's possible, but you've got to know more about it than they do and be able to handle every eco-fable they've got. Most can't take too much in one sitting. You have to be patient but firm. Then pose the questions that nobody seems to ask:

The answers will change over time. My purpose is for free enterprise to slowly displace government management as we learn how to handle ever bigger markets.

With the CEO, it's a matter of co-aligning their interests with those of the planet, which isn't as hard a sell as it used to be. Most corporate executives know that a healthy planet produces greater wealth. They also know that corruption misallocates capital resources into inefficient uses. There is a profit to be made in reducing risk to producing assets and that means understanding the role of all operating constituents. A properly structured market system motivates all of that. The prerequisites for large-scale change center on two components: tort reform and insurance deregulation. You can't have a market that prices measured risks when those risks are all combined into the same pool. That's where insurance deregulation becomes important. Insurers have to be able to charge individual customers according to the risks associated with the choices customers make (we're not talking about congenital human diseases here). That "measured" risk bears no resemblance to reality when its cost is totally distorted with the cost of tort cases based in precedents produced by those unqualified to make such decisions. On the other hand, automating measurement, transactions, and mediation gets cheaper with volume and applied technology.

My work is directed toward developing the tactics by which to get that ball rolling. I have done a fair amount of work since the book was published that I can't discuss here. As an additional carrot, I think I may have come up with a legal model by which to patent natural process assets (such as medicinal nutrients) that would be extremely profitable while providing motive to invest in healthy natural habitat.

SUNNI: Has there been progress in moving toward InsCert, or something like it? How's it going?

MARK: Well, one thing that's holding it back is the patent application. I filed it three and a half years ago and still there has not even been a first office action. That should tell you something. It's awfully hard to interest venture capital without a way to license the intellectual property. Under the new patent rules (that were written for global corporations with big legal staffs), the term is ticking away without protection while the patent office dithers. I didn't really file in order to be the next Microsoft; it was a defensive move to hinder evil people from ruining a good thing. I don't have the money to defend it. So I fix up the place, teach the kids, dabble a little with inventing, build a communications infrastructure and a library of information, do my legal homework, and bide my time. It's in God's hands; I just do what I'm told.

SUNNI: What do you think it might take to get all federal lands reverted back into private hands? Is that something you want to see?

MARK: Absolutely I want to see it -- almost as much as I'd like to see some crooks go to jail! If you think I'm going to detail that strategy here… I may be crazy, but I'm not that dumb.

SUNNI: [laughing] Fair enough, Mark. The closing chapter of your book, Strategy of the Commoners, is inspiring in several areas. After the recent rulings by the Supreme Court, though, I think many might agree with me that part of what you're advocating is doomed to fail -- the deck has been totally stacked against we, the people. How would you respond to those who hold that view? Do you know of cases where individuals have gone for the jugular, as you suggest, and succeeded?

MARK: I'm more hopeful than that, even though I did have some awful despair when I finally understood the implications of total bureaucracy under the United Nations. Still, when I get this, "It's all hopeless," wailing from property rights advocates, I just tell them to go bury their ammunition for the coming battle if they don't want to try a new tack. It may come to that some day, but we're not there yet. Wayne Hage is succeeding, at enormous cost I might add. He thinks I'm on to something. There have been some attempts in the direction I suggest, but none so far use the entire plan I've laid out. Property rights legal advocates keep waiting for these cases to come to them instead of designing a case in advance and collecting the supporting evidence over time in such a way that it has a real chance of winning. I never really expected this to take full effect in my lifetime, but I do think it's inevitable that the socialist model will fail. When it does, maybe I'll still be around to see the free enterprise system take off. I don't care who gets the credit.

SUNNI: What sorts of things do you enjoy for fun, Mark? It's clear that you love the land -- do you get to enjoy yourself hiking, camping, and other outdoor activities?

MARK: I've seen enough of the world to know how blessed I am to live where and how I do. I love teaching my kids how to learn. I'm very proud of the work they've done -- my twelve year old is almost done teaching herself college calculus; both kids are writing a term paper on the fall of Rome from original sources, and sometimes they help me weed. I love opening the eyes of people who've never seen just how crushingly beautiful, varied, and interesting the land really can be, especially revealing its subtleties and little surprises (the orchids this year were amazing). I really like finding that first new weed and getting it before it breeds, almost as much as I hate finding one that blew seed. The most special thing is to witness the return of yet another native species and to see it add to the dynamic tapestry. The worst is to find out my neighbors have another weed.

When I do travel -- such as on a book tour -- I like to find the people who have worked their land all their lives and pump them for information on how its systems and their businesses work. You would be amazed what I learned from a gold miner who likes to build salmon spawning beds with the newly broken-up gravels his dredge discharges; the guy saved a major salmon run almost single-handed. People like that. They're suspicious of me of course, until they find out that I like to tinker. Most everybody loves to garden with nature once they get started. It's one of humanity's better qualities.

SUNNI: It's amazing and inspiring, seeing your children's minds bloom, and being able to help that process. I don't understand how so many people can shuttle their kids between school and endless activities, and never really be with them, enjoy them ... And yeah, getting off the interstates and really experiencing the land is eye-opening. I've been able to do that a fair amount myself, and have come to love the land every place I've done so -- Wyoming, Montana, and Arizona, so far. Sounds like you have an ideal gig going!

MARK: It's pretty idyllic.

SUNNI: Who inspires you?

MARK: Patrick Henry, Wayne Hage, Sibelius ... Tesla, George Washington (and George Washington Harris) ... Ayn Rand, or, better, James J. Hill -- I prefer doers ... but then there are the theoreticians: Aristotle, Jesus Christ, and Bullwinkle! Not to mention Henry Lamb, Thomas Jefferson, or Curly Howard. These are people with the vision, courage, and humor to go on every day, even when alone and things turn ugly.

SUNNI: I've taken up a lot of your time already, but before I go, is there anything else you'd like to say? Something we didn't cover, or a new project you're working on ...?

MARK: My current focus is in developing interactive video as a way to get this message across in a manner that is easily accessible and compelling with easy access to deeper information. It should be a fun challenge.

I'd also like to thank good readers. These are the people who supply questions and want to learn more. The key to writing about a new concept is to understand where their confusion arose, which is usually before they realized they had a question. Good readers will explore that confusion with you and help you get to the truth by which to create solutions. Readers are the best.

SUNNI: I'll go back and start Natural Process from the beginning again, and contribute to that process if I can. Mark, thank you so much for all your time today! It's been an absolute delight to get to know you better, and I hope our paths cross in person someday.

MARK: If you ever come to the Bay Area, the greatest pleasure I get from having done restoration work is to share the beauty revealed when people tend their land. You would be a welcome guest.