Saturday, August 17, 2013

Federal Environmentalism Is Unavoidable

What are his thoughts on dependency ratios? Photo Credit: jacksonhole.net
I'm generally a big fan of environmental action by governments occurring on the state level. Policy and implementation can better utilize local knowledge, achieve a closer fit with local conditions, and experiment with a wider range of ideas. Politically, state-specific issues can create novel coalitions that cut across the calcified Democrat-Republican stalemate. But Sarah Keller in High Country News highlights a problem with this approach:
Wyoming Game and Fish’s plight is indicative of a growing dilemma for wildlife management agencies in sparsely populated, but wildlife-rich, Western states. Wildlife and habitat threats are growing, and agencies are increasingly charged with managing non-game species, dealing with wildlife diseases and invasive species, overseeing controversial predator reintroductions, and helping bring  young people into the outdoors. Meanwhile, the public’s outdoor interests are changing and becoming more diverse. Game and fish departments aren't just hook and bullet agencies, though hunters and anglers still provide much of their funding.
In Wyoming, 80 percent of game and fish’s budget comes from license fees, as well as federal taxes on hunting and fishing gear. But that license pool is shrinking. Ironically, wildlife managers have had to reduce Wyoming’s mule deer and antelope licenses as herds have declined, cutting into the very revenue that would help with studying those declines and improving habitat for the species.
This is a classic story of 'institutional drift': public policy not adapting to changing conditions in the world. In this case, state conservation agencies have bigger agendas than ever, but their funding streams are based on historical patterns of population and outdoor recreation behavior that no longer exist. Given the current trajectories of urbanization and climate change-driven environmental degradation, Western states are sure to see these sorts of mismatch issues intensify in the future.

Western states have a disproportionate share of America's environmental capital. Asking these states to shoulder an increasing burden of environmental management spending while their funding base shrinks raises equity issues. The fact that most federally-owned land is out West further reinforces the case for some sort of cross-subsidy.

Some might see a federal program of redistribution from high-population/low-environmental capital states to low-population/high environmental capital states as unjust. After all, much of the West's beauty and richness is highly experiential and hard to access from big coastal population centers. But given the uncertainty of climate change's effects, some risk-pooling seems appropriate. Additionally, America's environmental endowment is an integral component of the national identity, and deserves to be empowered regardless of population trends.

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