There is no doubt that our nation cannot continue to plunge deeper in debt while borrowing huge sums each year. Most of us know that addressing this crisis will require cuts in both annual domestic and defense spending, but most critical are significant changes in the big programs like Social Security and Medicare, and reform of the tax code to eliminate many special exemptions.
Everything must be on the table, but in proportion to its impact on the debt. I’m a Westerner and a lifelong conservationist who is committed to both environmental and fiscal sustainability. We need to be clear that further reductions in natural resource management won’t make a dent on the fiscal problems facing our nation. There simply isn’t enough money there.
In the West, public land recreation supports much of our economy. The benefit from natural resource conservation jobs is significant; they create almost 10 million jobs and generate over $145 billion in revenue. These jobs leverage billions of dollars per year more in private investment. Over the last 30 years, Federal funding for the fish, wildlife and public land programs that support this part of our region’s economy have been cut by 75 percent.
Unfortunately, many elected officials focus on only one small part of the federal budget -- the “discretionary” domestic spending programs that Congress approves each year for programs that involve conservation. Instead of taking a comprehensive approach to fiscal reform, these legislators keep coming back to the same places to look for more and more savings -- but they never get the larger deficit-reduction job done. Meanwhile, some popular programs that involve what most people consider basic government programs have been disproportionately targeted for cuts, producing inefficiencies, lost opportunities, fewer jobs, public frustration and poor long-term policies.
Thirty years ago, almost 4 percent of federal spending went to natural resource conservation. Today, this line item in the federal budget receives less than 1 percent -- just $35 billion -- of the annual federal outlay. By comparison, credits, exemptions, deferrals and other breaks given specific groups in the tax code now cost $1.3 trillion per year. That is 37 times more than the entire amount each year spent on all environment and natural resource programs. Giving a special interest a tax exception is nothing more than a subsidy, and it has the same impact on the Treasury as writing a check.
Spending on fish, wildlife and natural resources programs of most concern to hunters, anglers and other wildlife conservation groups, is now only a meager .4 percent of the federal budget. Yet deeper cuts have been proposed, including the complete elimination of funding for the North American Wetland Conservation Act and the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
In fiscal year 2011, total federal spending was $3.6 trillion, revenue was $2.3 trillion, and the deficit was $1.3 trillion. The gross national debt, the accumulation of years of deficits, is now $16 trillion. Of that, over $11.0 trillion is publicly held; over half by foreign interests. Interest on the publicly held debt was $224 billion last year but is estimated to swell to over $1 trillion by the year 2020, as interest rates rise back to more typical historic averages of 5-6 percent. For the first time since World War II, the gross debt now exceeds the Gross Domestic Product and is projected to be almost three times GDP by 2038.
Truly grappling with this national crisis will require cooperation and compromise. The problem is too big to be solved by ideological purity, a conclusion reached by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, who co-chaired the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.
Shared sacrifice is necessary if we are to stabilize the nation’s debt and build a sound foundation for economic growth. We just need to be clear that additional cuts to highly leveraged and cost-effective programs, such as natural resource conservation in the western United States, cannot address the core problem though they can harm our regional economy.
Paul W. Hansen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an op-ed service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Jackson, Wyoming.