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Like there’s no tomorrow

Alan Braunholtz

A cardinal rule of planning for the future is not to waste any capital you’ve saved on feel good spending sprees.

Dipping into retirement funds, college savings or taking out a second mortgage to subsidize a new car to impress the neighbors are seldom seen as a good move. Get into the habit of it and you end up with no house, no bank account and no money to replace your now-aging car.

Selling off or destroying assets to support an excessive lifestyle is irresponsibly ignoring the future, not planning for it.

No surprise, then, that the Bush administration continues its spendthrift holiday from reality where our countries finances, environment and public lands are concerned.

We have the record federal deficits created in part by the tax cuts designed to favor the ultra rich. We have the head-in-the-sand approach to climate change. And they’re planning to sell off our public lands to pay for short falls in an otherwise bloated budget.

It’s hard to take the government at its word on anything these days. Obsessive secrecy and misrepresentation seems to be its knee-jerk reaction through hunting accidents, domestic programs and foreign policy.

The underestimating [and active suppression] of the real costs of the Medicare bill, the pedantic denials of our use of torture, the apparently illegal tapping of phones, the suppressing of public photos of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff with his clients and the president are all symptoms of an arrogant disregard for open government and democracy.

Instead of engaging and convincing us with tough and perhaps ugly arguments for their actions, they prefer to rely on secrecy and nitpicking misuse of language to avoid stating what they are doing. It’s as if they know we won’t approve or more frighteningly, they know we don’t want to know about the unpleasant side of governing.

The war on terror looks to last as long as the Cold War did. If we want to be a country where we see indefinite detainment without trial, systematic torture and the odd beating to death of suspected enemies for the next 20 years as OK, we should be open about it. Guantanomo Bay is getting to be an international embarrassment.

More and more reports reveal most of the people there are being held on flimsy grounds; evidence is too strong a word for it. For instance, one person who confessed to seeing Bin Laden on TV news a few times is damned in his file as “admitted to knowing Bin Laden.” True but not really.

If it makes us uncomfortable enough that we have to hide our actions in secret prisons in foreign lands and behind careful phrasing and redefinitions of words, then we probably shouldn’t be doing it.

Environmentally, the government also knows its policies don’t mesh with what the majority of the public wants.

Rather than honestly explain and convince us why, they rely on sleight of hand, knowing it’s not a pressing day-to-day issue for most people and may go unnoticed.

Jim Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard institute and the government’s top climate modeler, is told to shut up by high government officials because they don’t want to hear his talk about how dangerous our interference with the climate may be!

Agricultural Undersecretary Mark Rey proposes to sell off 200,000 acres of the National Forest to raise $1 billion to help pay for rural schools. Rural counties relied on an archaic system in which a percentage of logging sales went to them.

As logging decreased, Congress set up a fund to replace this revenue. This made sense. We subsidize logging on public land, so why not use any money saved by not logging to help the counties? I’d rather subsidize schools than logging.

The 2007 budget cuts this fund and is partially replaced by money from land sales. One billion sounds like a lot until you notice it’s spread over five years, and $200 million a year isn’t that much in government terms.

Forsaking political nepotism for qualified professionals to run departments like FEMA would probably save that much in terms of efficiency. We’re giving billions in subsidies to energy companies. There are all those no-bid contracts to favored corporations in Iraq, not to mention the $440 billion odd annual dept of defense budget.

Mark Rey is an old timber industry lobbyist, so it may be more about setting a dangerous precedent of selling off public lands. They try to make it sound good, though: “Only a fraction of our lands and nothing of ‘significant’ value.”

While the timber, development and energy companies didn’t have direct input on which lands are up for sale, conversations in the past months or years may have had some influence, according to Mr. Rey. Is that governmentspeak for we’re giving them what they want?

What does “significant” mean anyway? As a child I loved to play in vast woods that when revisited as an adult turned out to be only small, “insignificant” copses. These small parcels close to towns are what people use most and where they develop their love of the larger forests they visit later.

Then what happens in five years when we’ve sold our land, they’ve spent the money, and the schools still need the funding? Sell off more land or budget a better way to pay for rural services?

School funding needs overhauling in much of the country where as the current system of regional property taxes favor affluent neighborhoods. Poor children end up in poorly financed schools. So much for our meritocracy where we all get a fair shake at education. (In Colorado, the funds are dispersed equally per student.)

Selling off lands for schools sounds good. Who could be against schools? But the Bureau of Land Management has also been told to sell off $350 million worth of lands, and this money goes straight to the treasury to help pay for some of those tax cuts, I guess.

This isn’t about financing schools so much as the ideology of this administration, which sees public lands as a wasted resource and an affront to the free-market system.

They’d like to sell off as much as they could get away with. “Let the people who value the land the most own it” sort of idea. Too bad if you’re poor and like the national forests.

Check out http://www.fs.fed.us/land/staffrural-schools.html for the maps of the lands considered for sale. See if your “backs on to national forest” house, views, path, etc/, will still be.

My guess is they’ll be late posting all the land onto the site. Otherwise, people would have too much time to see what they’ll lose and offer their input. The comment period ends in March.

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.

Vail, Colorado


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