While not distrusting all things federal, I do maintain an inquisitive skepticism about the devilish details when I run across some scheme to use its often unchecked power for one thing or another. Selling off federal holdings that some civil servants believe are no longer useful is one such catcher of my attention.

What sets off red lights and sirens for me at the moment is that we have a huge federal debt of about $3.5 trillion. With seemingly little backbone in our Congress to address it head on, some of the boys and girls are salivating at the idea of selling off some stuff. Get rid of it. Sell it. No career risk. Piece o’ cake.

Since the Bush administration first came up with the idea, pieces of property we own… a lighthouse or two here … an apartment complex or vacant office building there … have been on the auction block. Why someone outbid 28 other people to buy a Massachusetts lighthouse for $190,000 makes me curious. It really happened.

Now, consider this: we taxpayers own about 650 million acres of land and about 429,000 buildings. In fiscal 2009, 45,190 structures were categorized as “underutilized.” Additionally, 10,327 were called “excess or unwanted.” Also consider, no one in the government knew those numbers before 2009; not until George Bush said several years earlier “Go out and count ‘em.” It was all just “there.” Barak Obama followed suit, directing agencies to save $8 billion by selling off property and making associated cuts.

Sounds like we’re talking big bucks here, doesn’t it? Well, a federal fiscal commission says we could rake in about $15 billion if those properties we selectively call “underutilized” or “excess-unwanted” were sold at or near market value. Which, of course, is impossible. Still, a Republican in the House has put in a bill to “git ‘er done.”

Should some be sold? Probably. But hold on there. If the debt is $3.5 trillion and you make $15 billion by selling our holdings, you’re not making a very big dent in the problem. And today’s “surplus” may be tomorrow’s “needed.” Still, with the self-serving outlook of various vote-seekers in Congress, it might not be too hard to build up a head of steam among the unknowing to have a huge federal garage sale.

There in lies my angst. Especially when you consider how much and how many federal holdings are here in the West. It may be O.K. to sell off a long-closed military base in Montana. But how about some of that Montana rangeland that looks useless? You know. Some of those miles and miles of nothing to Easterners but which are really important habitat for hundreds of species of wildlife and vegetation that would no longer be protected?

And if that doesn’t give you a shiver or two, what about some forests that nobody seems to use? You know. All those federal trees out there that just clutter up our landscape?

Fact is, where you live in our expansive country largely affects how you look at a lot of those millions of federal acres and thousands of properties. And forests. To people in large cities, maybe an empty office building is a historic treasure but all those empty spaces out West where no one lives or all those trees, well, why not start there? “Just waste space. And there’s so much of it.”

I’m not saying “Watch out! Here they come!” But I am saying look at this so far innocent idea of reducing our federal holdings as a camel’s nose under our tent. There certainly are government properties that have become excess and which we could do without. But the “devilish detail” is in the selection process.

There is already a move in Congress … courtesy of the aforementioned Rep. Ron Kind (R-WI) … to eliminate and/or bypass the “cumbersome” review currently required before federal properties can be offered for sale. Part of the existing review is to first offer buildings or land to states or local governments at discounts of up to 100%.

So here are some warning signs. The feds are in deep red ink and looking for ways to bail out the boat. States and local governments are so hard pressed they can’t afford to buy anything or take on new “free” debt. Corporations and individuals with megabucks are always looking to acquire more. You, me and the guy across the street couldn’t buy up enough to protect the valuable stuff. And this guy wants to eliminate the review process which may be more important now than ever.

Steve Symms used to be a senator from Idaho. Fiscal conservative. Except for himself personally: full federal retirement and a lobbying job for life. But he used to have a good line that sums up this potentially dangerous threat to Western lands.

“Doesn’t make any sense to sell off the farm to buy a sports car.”

Steve and I haven’t agreed on much through the years. But that about says it.

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