Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Funding issues in the environment

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Phillip Loughlin always does a bang-up job of hitting some nacent idea between my brain cells and getting it out.  This time, a commenter on one of the Hog Blogger's condor posts knocked me in the temple, and out popped a notion that had been stewing in my unconscious for quite some time.

The commenter made a common, innocuous claim:  That condor preservation costs about $74k per bird.  He also alluded to the notion that this was extravagant.  I've heard this claim before, and though I don't know it's a fact, I'm willing to believe it is true right now, because condors have had such a small population for so long.

Where it took me was deep in my head, into the realm of funding for our natural resources and habitats.  I've had more than a few dealings with funding, and I've come to two conclusions:  If we don't step up, as a society, and start paying for effective research and management of our natural resources, somebody will... or, won't... but either way, it won't always be good.

I've dealt with land managers who've argued that lower visitation means "fewer boots on the habitat", while still decrying the loss of money for good protections.  I've dealt with it as a visitor, finding garbage cans and pit toilets overflowing and filthy.  I've dealt directly, as a park employee, with trying to make a living in a 3/4 time position in a place where the median price for a house was $425,000.  And I've dealt with it as an advocate in the legislative realm, where many have looked for every possible way to fund our public resources management, only to find themselves having to compete for shrinking dollars with fire, police, health, and education. 

Two very bad things seem to be happening, and both are exacerbated by our current economic crisis.

First, we've just flat-out stopped funding government (or "our" as I like to call it) management of public resources.  We've cut park staff, rangers, and facilities for public use.  California has the lowest number of per capita game wardens:  200 wardens for a population over 38 million, with more than 800 miles of marine coastline in a state 158706 square miles in size, 2407 of those inland waterways (about 500 sq. mi. more than all of Delaware).  And for yet another year, our state will probably furlough 10% of their work hours

Second, in their desperation, many advocates are turning to a new form of funding in order to take care of our public places:  Private contributions.  But, private money comes with some serious issues.  When people give huge chunks of money to help purchase lands, there is always the conversation about how the place will be managed.  This is understandable, but the government has always gained some leverage, during those conversations, by saying that it will be paying for management, and therefore it will have to determine management in a public fashion.  But when private money goes into implementing management plans, the pressure to manage for those who provide the funding grows exponentially.

This second move brings with it some sad potential for public management of public lands for private benefit.  I am sure there are many benevolent and wealthy folks out there willing to give up millions of dollars with no desire for getting special treatment when it comes to managing our public lands, but we cannot merely trust in the good nature of these folks.

The bottom line is that, cliche' though it may be, public lands are our lands, and if we are going to keep them well for all of us and for our future, then we cannot shirk our duties to protect them.  Nor can we give over those duties to a small minority of people to manage, in the hopes that they will still think about the public's needs and wishes.

One way to help step up is by buying duck stamps, even if you don't hunt.  Also, involve yourself in the public management process by commenting on proposed rules and rule changes.  The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires that any federal government action that may impact the environment must go through a public process.  California has a wonderful law like that, too (CEQA) - and other states may have other public-input requirements. 

It's always important to give whatever volunteer time you can, and it's always important to donate to worthy causes.  But don't forget that the United States is special and worth protecting only because of its democratic republican principles of a government of, by, and for the people.

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