Thursday, July 12, 2007

Failing to see the forest fire for the trees.

WASHINGTON (AP) - Nevada Sens. Harry Reid and John Ensign complained Wednesday that money they've obtained for use in the Tahoe Basin is being held up by bureaucratic red tape. If more of it had been spent on brush clearing and fuel reduction, some of the devastation of last month's Tahoe fire could have been prevented, they said.

"We worked hard to get this money. ... we expected the money to be spent," Reid, D-Nev., told reporters after the senators met with U.S. Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell in Majority Leader Reid's office.

It turns out that rules and regulations for lake preservation and habitat management got in the way of habitat management and lake preservation.

The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency that administers some of the restrictions has come in for angry criticism after a blaze destroyed 254 homes and other buildings across about 5 square miles and displaced about 3,500 people late last month. Some residents say the agency overstepped its mission of protecting the lake by imposing unwieldy rules on homeowners including even limiting where residents can rake pine needles.

Now, of course that seems absurd, but there probably are reasons that seem good to those who are trying to micromanage an ecology and human behavior within it. But then, that's the problem - the attempt to micromanage an ecology (or indeed, any somewhat chaotic system) leads to absurdity at best.

Certainly fire is a large part of the natural ecology around here. That doesn't mean we have any good reason to let fire burn down our habitats! No ethos that requires the sacrifice of the ethical will survive long enough to benefit much of anything, which is why all persistent ethical systems act to the benefit of those practicing it first.

And let's not forget that a forest fire ain't exactly great for riparian habitat. All that erosion leads to choked and polluted streams, something the micromanagement was intended to prevent!

So this is not a post about "bureaucratic mismanagement," per se. In fact, it's difficult to imagine how one could manage the habitat and preserve Lake Tahoe without some sort of bureau, and that's clearly a matter of common concern and interest to everyone living there.

Nope, my criticism focuses on the plain silly idea that you can create rules (or even computer programs) that can substitute for expert human judgment. What's needed here is an expert system that works to tell people the right thing to do in various situations rather than forbidding "bad" behavior on a microscopic level, without regard to secondary and tertiary effects.

What I would suggest would be to take a minuscule amount of those federal dollars to set up a powerful Wiki and pool the knowledge of experts and residents of the Tahoe basin and use it as a tool to hammer out a new management scheme. It's a far more powerful approach than public meetings and seminars, and a far more efficient way to preserve and present the information.

In other words, we need to start exploring Management 2.0.

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