Now’s time to make land management make some sense

The federal deficit is already gigantic, and it keeps getting bigger in order to stimulate the plummeting economy. But times of crisis are also times of opportunity. This is the perfect chance for the Obama administration to improve the way the federal lands are managed.
Consider the big three land agencies: the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service. Each has its rangers, and biologists and archaeologists, botanists, recreation managers, historians, hydrologists, planners, lawyers, surveyors, cartographers, architects, geologists, engineers, technicians, cops and public relations specialists.
Granted, each agency has a different mission, sometimes more than one. That’s especially true of the Park Service. In some places, it protects natural wonders like the Grand Canyon while providing for public access. At others, it preserves and interprets historical sites. But if one agency can handle such disparate functions now, why not consolidate all three agencies? A unified and more efficient agency could manage the parks along with timber sales, grazing leases and minerals management. Overhead costs should go down, and our life in the hinterlands would be simplified. I can’t be the only one who’d prefer one-stop shopping for a Christmas tree or firewood permit, instead of dealing with the Forest Service or the BLM or both.
Once we get all the land-management agencies consolidated, the next money-saving move would come from designating what I’ve called Stupid Zones. These are the areas that are stupid to build in because of predictable dangers from avalanches, forest fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, mudslides, floods or other obvious hazards. While zoning is primarily a local responsibility, the federal government should quit encouraging construction in Stupid Zones.
As it is, national flood insurance is subsidized by the federal government, so a property owner can be reimbursed for his folly in building next to a river known to overflow its banks — a risk no private insurer would take. There are proposals to expand this to cover coastal erosion — a subsidy for millionaires who want to build palaces on beachfront property.
Here in the interior West, nearly half the U.S. Forest Service budget already goes to firefighting, and one reason, according to the agency, is the “expansion of residences in the wildland urban interface.”It’s one thing if a wildfire burns some beetle-killed lodgepole in the middle of nowhere, but it’s quite another if it threatens an amenity-laden mountain getaway.