The federal deficit is already gigantic, and there's serious talk of making it even bigger in order to stimulate the plummeting economy. But times of crisis are also times of opportunity. This is the perfect chance for the Obama administration to improve the way the federal lands are managed.
At the moment, increased budgets for many federal programs and agencies seem unlikely, and all the economic stimulus appears to be aimed at Detroit and Wall Street, not the West. But there are lots of ways to cut costs and increase income on Western public lands.
Consider the big three land agencies: the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service. Each has its rangers. And biologists. And archaeologists, botanists, recreation managers, historians, hydrologists, planners, lawyers, surveyors, cartographers, architects, geologists, engineers, technicians, cops and public relations specialists.
Granted, each agency has a different mission, sometimes more than one. That's especially true of the Park Service. In some places, it protects natural wonders like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon while providing for public access. At others, it preserves and interprets historical sites, like the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail in California.
But if one agency can handle such disparate functions now, a new -- and bigger -- agency could do even better, managing the parks along with timber sales, grazing leases and minerals management. Merge all three into an "American Resources Service." Overhead costs should go down, and our life in the hinterlands would be simplified. I can't be the only one who'd prefer one-stop shopping for a Christmas tree or firewood permit, instead of dealing with the Forest Service or the BLM or both.
Once we get all the land-management agencies consolidated, the next money-saving move would come from designating Stupid Zones.
A Stupid Zone is an area that is stupid to build in, on account of predictable dangers -- avalanches, forest fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, mudslides, floods, etc. While zoning is primarily a local responsibility, the federal government should quit encouraging construction in Stupid Zones.
As it is, national flood insurance is subsidized by the federal government, so a property owner can be reimbursed for his folly in building next to a river known to overflow its banks -- a risk no private insurer would take. There are proposals to expand this to cover coastal erosion -- a subsidy for millionaires who want to build palaces on beachfront property.
Here in the Interior West, nearly half the U.S. Forest Service budget already goes to firefighting, and one reason, according to the agency, is the "expansion of residences in the wildland urban interface." It's one thing if a wildfire burns some beetle-killed lodgepole in the middle of nowhere; cut a firebreak and let it burn itself out.
But it's quite another if it threatens a 4,000-square-foot amenity-laden mountain getaway. Then the fire must be suppressed at whatever cost -- sometimes the lives of the firefighters. The blue-collar kids on the fire crews end up being sacrificed to protect the estates of the upper crust.
Why not let the private sector do this kind of work? In the late summer of 2007, wildfire threatened mansions along the Big Wood River in Idaho near the resort towns of Sun Valley, Hailey and Ketchum. These folks had good (and expensive, at about $10,000 a year) fire insurance. Their carrier sent private crews in to pump flame retardant over their mansions.
If people can afford to build in Stupid Zones, let them. But let them cover their own risks. Keep the public's firefighting dollars for protecting the public's property.
So some cost-cutting is possible with bureaucratic consolidation and eliminating subsidies to the Stupid Zones. How about the income side?
Most of us use the public lands for recreation. Accommodating us costs money, and yet we hate the RAT -- Recreation Access Tax, or more formally, the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program, wherein we're supposed to buy permits to walk on our own land. It's not easy to administer, and it's certainly an annoyance, or worse, for outdoor-minded citizens.
So why don't we borrow an idea from hunters and anglers, who tax themselves to improve their recreation? Under the Pittman-Robertson Act, there's a federal excise tax on rifles and ammunition. The money goes mainly to state wildlife agencies, which use it to improve habitat.
Similarly, the Dingell-Johnson Act collects an excise tax on fishing gear and tackle, and the money is doled out to states for everything from habitat restoration to developing public access to fishing holes.
So why not eliminate the RAT, and replace it with a small excise tax on recreational gear: tents, hiking boots, binoculars, mountain bikes, snowshoes, kayaks, cross-country skis and the like.
The resulting revenue could build and maintain trails, provide parking, preserve historic structures, enhance non-game-animal habitat, buy water rights for instream flow protections, restore overgrazed land -- in short, make Uncle Sam into a responsible landlord who takes good care of his (and our) property.
I realize that none of these changes will be easy to accomplish. But we just elected a president who campaigned on the need for "change." And there's no time like the present.