Change we could believe in

  • Ed Quillen


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.

Change we can believe in
Rodger Schmitt
Rodger Schmitt
Dec 28, 2008 02:40 PM
I agree with Ed that there is duplication of program effort between federal land management agencies and it costs the taxpayer. And, I agree that we need to do something about development in what he terms the "stupid zones." I also think it is time for the recreation user to support a tax on recreational equipment to provide resources to manage public lands, particularly recreational resources. However, in his first suggestion, linking the Park Service with the Forest Service and the BLM for consolidation of programs into a single agency would be a fool's errand for the Obama Administration. The NPS mission is quite disparate from the multiple-use missions of the BLM and FS, and any attempt to merge it with the BLM and FS would ultimately prove futile. The NPS constituency would fight it tooth and nail and rightly so. Combining the BLM and FS makes much more sense, and it has been tried more than once. But, the effort it would take and the bad feelings it would engender would divert the new administration's attention away from more critical needs that can be accomplished with support from a cross-section of citizen interests and environmental groups and both political parties. I lived through Interchange in the 80's, and the enemies of BLM/FS consolidation came out of the woodwork from within the agencies (particularly the FS), from constituent groups of both agencies, and from the Congress through pressure from industry groups. While perhaps a good idea, it would waste much needed energy and resources that could be better used to overcome the Bush Administration's considerable success in undermining good public land stewardship.
Consolidation of all three Lnd Management agencies
Ralph Peterson
Ralph Peterson
Dec 30, 2008 08:33 AM
Thia is one of those rather stupid ideas that has been aroung for about 50 years. If it made sense to consolidate things why not only one airline and one grocery store chain.
Recent consolidations of Federal agencies include the Dept of Homeland Security, HEW and GSA. Does history show that these consolidations led to better and more effective service? The answer is a resounding "NO". For example does FEMA or the Border Patrol operate better buried below a number of layers in the Department of Homeland security? Again the answer is obviously "NO". Those layers are political appointees who frequently have no experience or training in the functions of the agencies they supervise.
Consolidation of Land Management bureaus
K. L. Drews
K. L. Drews
Feb 17, 2009 11:02 AM
There are more than 3 land management bureaus. And while I understand while some of the others were not included, I cannot fathom why you did not include the NPS sister agency - the National Wildlife Refuge System. With over 98 million acres, in every state and most territories, including some new monuments in the Pacific, it should have been considered. Presently located in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency, it is managed along with many regulatory and international efforts. Many of the efforts mirror the NPS, and are managed similarly and even regarded the same in the appropriation process.