With the congress’ and the Obama adminsitration’s misguided focus on deficits and austerity this year, most of the focus has been on big-ticket items like Medicare and Social Security. What often gets lost is that with the past three decades of tax cutting and budget-hacking, without actually paying for all the things we want to spend money on, what we’ve done in many cases is leave a dysfunctional shell in place that doesn’t really get any of the job done, but is at least there so that nobody notices that nobody is home anymore.
High Country News has a couple of great illustrations this week from the US Forest Service, which seems to be able to generally staff its offices but not so’s it can do its job. And I’m not referring to the trend over the past 10 or 15 years to have contractors staff and maintain Forest Service campgrounds, often resulting in badly maintained and messy campsites. That is one thing you might notice.
If you’ve driven through forests in Colorado or Oregon or in western Canada, you’ve seen the ravages of pine beetles. Where you expect to see evergreen slopes, the mountains often seem rusted brown. One of the few approaches to at least limit the damage and spread is to harvest infested trees. But you won’t find the Forest Service proactively managing the problem. Short on staff and expertise, they’ve apparently been able to do little else besides watch the destruction, along with the rest of us. Not much “management” going on here. (There are many would say that all “management” has ever meant at the forest service is handing out permits to loggers to clear-cut at will, and so maybe its illogical to criticize them for doing more in this case.) The end result has been a lot of timber going to waste and an epidemic that has possibly grown worse than it might have had it been better managed.
The second example involves recreational use. At least in the Pacific Northwest, nonprofit groups that bring teens to the outdoors are being denied permits for their trips to National Forests and wilderness areas. The reason is that the Forest Service isn’t sufficiently staffed for the agencies to go through the work to accredit nonprofit agencies. Those of us who can get ourselves and our families to these areas are still free to use them, as are public and private educational institutions. But not the nonprofits – generally the agencies supporting poorer kids. It’s another example of how our moves toward austerity and small government are turning our commonwealth into more wealth for those who already have it.