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Mark Vande Pol

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.

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