No one doubts that our nation cannot continue to plunge deeper in debt while borrowing huge sums each year. Most of us also admit that addressing this crisis will require deep cuts in domestic and defense spending, significant changes in the big entitlement programs like social security and Medicare, and an overdue reform of the tax code.
Everything must be on the table. But I have one caveat, and that's because I'm a Westerner: Let us not make further reductions in natural resource management. We've already crippled some programs, and eviscerating them further won't make a dent on the fiscal problems facing our nation.
In this region, public-land recreation is either the basis of an economy or contributes greatly to it, so any reduction in funding creates major impacts. Over the last 30 years, the cuts have been severe; federal funding for the fish, wildlife and public-land programs that support this part of our region's economy has 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, legislators keep coming back to the same places to look for 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, resulting in inefficiency, lost opportunities, fewer jobs, public frustration and poor long-term policies.
The benefit from natural resource management and conservation is significant; in the West, it creates almost 10 million jobs and generates over $100 billion in federal, state and local tax revenue. These jobs leverage billions of dollars per year more in private investment.
Thirty years ago, almost 4 percent of federal spending went to these programs; 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 that are of tremendous 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 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 Gross Domestic Product by 2038.
Truly grappling with this national 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 balance the nation's budget and build a sound foundation for economic growth.
But we need to be clear that additional cuts to highly leveraged programs such as natural resource conservation in the Western United States hardly touch the real problem: They just hammer our regional economy.
Paul Hansen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a regional director for the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan nonprofit that educates the public about the causes and consequences of federal budget deficits. He lives in Jackson, Wyo.