Sunday Roundup: Fire, 11 Years Later

Eleven years in the making, firefighting system remains on the shelf • 150th birthday of transcontinental railroad act • July 4th meal comes with a heaping helping of monopoly

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The Denver Post tells us that federal agencies announced a “bold strategy to battle the growing threat of catastrophic wildfires.” Well, really, the announcement was 11 years ago, and the “bold strategy” is still waiting to be put into place.

David Olinger and Eric Gorski report Sunday on the sophisticated computer system called the Fire Program Analysis that would have allowed firefighting groups to coordinate their efforts. “It would help them weigh the benefits of fire suppression versus forest thinning, evaluate where to station people and equipment and decide how many planes to buy,” the reporters write.

When it was announced 11 years ago, the system was supposed to be up and running by 2007. But it wasn’t — and still isn’t. They report:

Federal agencies, led by the U.S. Forest Service, are still working on it. A peer review of the latest prototype called it the only alternative “to reduce risk and control costs at the national level” — but concluded it isn’t ready to use as intended.

Everyone who looked saw that the problem of wildfire threat was growing and that some kind of national tool was needed to organize a response. But the political system just couldn’t respond.

For instance, one recommendation was to move resources from coastal Alaska, where wildfires are rare, to California. But that never happened.

There was no plot to scuttle the program and nobody had a better idea. When the Government Accountability Office examined the effort, the agency concluded, “There is no alternative to FPA for national coordination of fire investments to reduce risk and control costs at the national level.”

It just didn’t happen and the cost of wildfires has continued to grow.

•More than $41 million in advertising in the current presidential campaign has been devoted to energy. That’s about one in four of the dollars spent on broadcast ads in the campaigns thus far. 

• The Washington Post visits the tar sands region of Alberta, Canada. This is where the oil will come from that will fill the Keystone XL pipeline. 

Tracie McMillan visits the July 4th meal and finds monopoly.  She writes:

You won’t find the word “capitalism” in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, but a free and open market economy is at the heart of both.

And the U.S. beef industry is a clear example of a restricted, tightly controlled market — with the control coming not from the government, but, as in the time of the Boston Tea Party, from private industry’s largest players. Every American-raised burger (or steak) comes from cattle on one of about 742,000 ranches across the country. Yet 85 percent of them will be slaughtered by one of just four companies.

This concentration is a problem for animals, whose chances of a humane slaughter diminish substantially as they crowd into increasingly mammoth facilities, and it is a problem for workers, who are forced to pick up the pace. It is risky for human health, since centralized processing makes it easy for meat contamination to spread far and wide.

And it is a serious problem for small ranchers. The livelihood of those who raise herds of less than 100 cattle — they constitute more than 90 percent of cattle ranchers — depends on slaughtering their stock within two weeks of the animals reaching prime weight. Yet access to slaughter and sale is tightly controlled by the meatpackers, whose market share is so large that they can dictate prices to ranchers, says Bill Bullard, chief executive of R-CALF, an advocacy group for cattle ranchers.

“Competition in the industry is almost nonexistent,” Bullard says. “The economics is forcing people out of business.” Since 1980, 42 percent of ranchers have called it quits.

Concentration is also bad for shoppers. The retail price of beef has been inching up since the 1990s, but “the inflation-adjusted price farmers receive has been going down,” says Robert Taylor, an Auburn University expert on the beef industry. “In a competitive market, [that] would translate into retail food prices going down . . . and that has not happened.”

Indeed, the share going to ranchers has dropped by about 10 percent, according to an analysis by Taylor of U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

• The Omaha World-Herald notes that it was 150 years ago Sunday that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act, the action by the federal government that led to the construction of the first transcontinental railway. 

All this was good for Omaha and the state of Nebraska. The Union Pacific, the product of government initiative, has 1,068 miles of track in the state and almost 8,000 employees. Happy 150th birthday!

 

 

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