Selling Public Land Isn’t the Solution to Budget Cuts

True or False:

The nation should hand over its public lands to the states because the National Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have shown through incompetence and neglect they simply can’t properly manage our property.

Anyone who watched the Feb. 25 meeting of the House Subcommittee on Public Lands—and had no background on the issues involved—might be tempted to answer "True." That's because the GOP members of the committee pushing various bills to get state control of our acres spent their time laying responsibility for a whole host of problems on the public managers. Everything from forest fires to the economic troubles of timber towns was traced to the desks of the men and women in uniform and the agencies they work for.

The obvious solution, the members stated over and over again, was to let their states take over and get the job done right.

Well, what the pols didn’t mention is that for 15 years they have been orchestrating these failures—if they even exist.

They’ve done this by shifting Forest Service funding to firefighting from almost every other responsibility, and by taking an axe to what was left after that.

Last year the FS had about half a billion dollars to work with in non-fire related business than it did in 1990. Since 1995, the Wildland Fire Management appropriation has more than tripled, going from 16 to 52 percent of the agency’s budget. By 2015 the FS budget has been cut by 32 percent in today’s dollars.

A review of the impact of this shifting of funds strictly to fire management reveals these cuts in other programs:

Wildlife & Fisheries Habitat Management—18 percent reduction
Land Management Planning—64 percent reduction
Recreation, Heritage and Wilderness—15 percent reduction
Deferred Maintenance—95 percent reduction
Roads—46 percent reduction
Facilities—68 percent reduction
Vegetation & Watershed Management—24 percent reduction

Using the budget to cripple public agencies protecting the public trust is nothing new. It's been going on at least since the 1980s, when James Watt was Secretary of the Interior.

His playbook was pretty public: If you reduce the number of timber and range managers in a district, the health of the range and the forests will become evident soon enough—and provide an argument for turning over management and ownership to private individuals, or the states.

That’s what this current crop of mostly western congressmen and women are trying. And, of course, they ridicule anyone who might bring facts into the debate, such as the very well proven fact that human-caused climate change is linked to the increasing number and intensity of forest fires.

One of my favorite moments in the hearing was when Representative Louie Gohmert (R-TX) had this valuable contribution after a witness mentioned the impact of climate change on forest fires: “Climate change is a huge problem in east Texas. We have it four times a year.”

Get it?

Are there some problems with federal land management? Certainly. But much of it can be traced to the financial crippling of those agencies by many of the congressmen making the complaints.

And, by the way, which of the states would have the billions required annually to improve the management of these lands?

Make no mistake: This isn’t about the health of our national lands. It’s just one strategy to take away the property we have owned and paid to maintain for generations. These lands are responsible for our traditions of outdoors recreation—and the millions of jobs they support.

Sportsmen need to let their congressional delegations keep hands off our property.