Federal budget cuts in 2011 aimed at reducing the deficit already have gutted the fund created by the FLAME Act of 2009 that was supposed to ensure the Forest Service had enough money to fight fires.
Because it ran out of money, the agency had to cut programs that provide recreation, protect habitat and improve forest health. These are the kinds of difficult decisions that people in both parties say we must make so we don’t saddle our children with debt created by decades of spending and wars without paying the bills.
When political leaders talk about cuts in a general sense, it is hard not to buy into the logic. But there are limits. Society has to decide what those are.
Ann Castle, the Interior department’s assistant secretary for water and science, spoke last week before the Idaho Environmental Forum, a group of engineers, lawyers, scientists and activists.
She was in Boise for a conference on the very successful Landsat satellite program. These satellites, first launched in 1972, provide what has become indispensable information for monitoring changes to the Earth caused by forces both controlled and uncontrolled by humans.
Folks such as farmers, scientists and city planners depend on these satellites to assess the food, water, forests and other resources our growing world population needs. Richard Allen, a professor of biological and agricultural engineering at the University of Idaho, is on the science team that oversees the Landsat program.
There are two Landsat satellites orbiting the globe. One is very old. If for some reason the U.S. Geological Survey and other agencies lose that constant monitoring for even a short time, it could undermine this incredible data set that has been in place for 40 years.
Maintaining this source of information is a high priority for the scientists and engineers who depend on it. But its future rests with NASA, which has many priorities.
Federal officials are considering transferring Landsat to the USGS, the agency that depends on it the most.
But that’s where federal budget issues come in.
Across-the-board cuts pressure USGS to trim its current $1 billion budget. How does the agency add a $1 billion program to its budget in these times?
Castle oversees USGS. She also is in charge of the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates 600 dams that provide water to 30 million people in 17 Western states. The government can cut all its water conservation programs, and it can trim back many of the studies in states like Idaho to help meet the water needs of the future. But that doesn’t get it much money.
“Most of Reclamation’s costs are fixed,” Castle said. “You can’t stop operating a dam.”
What you can do is defer maintenance, something Idahoans are familiar with.
But that has its own costs, Castle said.
“You take on a greater risk things will fail,” she said.
Overall, cutting back on spending means we are going to do less basic research about everything from the effects of fracking to how to feed the world and predict earthquakes.
That doesn’t mean we don’t cut budgets. It does mean we need to make the choices as wisely as possible.
For the Bureau of Reclamation, which makes critical decisions about how to manage our rivers and reservoirs in an era when weather conditions are becoming more erratic, studies and tools like Landsat are more important than ever.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484