Don Barry Describes Starving the Beast

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Don Barry, Wilderness Society Executive Vice President

Don Barry, the Executive Vice President of the Wilderness Society

jersu's picture

Recently, former assistant secretary at the Interior Department and current executive vice president at The Wilderness Society, Don Barry, spoke at the Association of National Park Rangers' annual conference. He described a right-wing program to systematically shrink the size of the federal government, called "starve the beast," that he says has detrimental effects on land-management agencies. This is a 3 minute excerpt from a much longer keynote address.


Conservative politicians have a very specific philosophy about the federal government. They hate it. They think it ought to be small. They want to dismantle it.

I grew up a fire-breathing young conservative republican. I supported Goldwater, even though I thought he was soft on Communism. (Laughter) I know the way these people think!

It is known as "starve the beast". If you can't dismantle the federal government, starve it. Have tax breaks so the federal government runs out of money. Next thing you know, you can't fund the federal programs, you can't fund the federal employees, you watch the programs you can't dismantle directly wither indirectly. And this has had a tremendous crippling impact throughout the federal agencies, particularly the land managing agencies.

I was talking to some folks in the Fish and Wildlife Service. The refuge system was facing a 20% staffing cut. 20 percent staffing cut in the refuge system under this administration's budget. Now, that's not going to happen. It's not going to happen with Norm Dicks as the House Appropriations [Interior] Subcommittee Chairman. But, that's what they were facing.

I talked to the regional director of the Southeast region for the Fish and Wildlife Service a year and a half ago. They had over 400 unfilled FTEs (full-time employees) in the Southeast region alone, in the refuge system. It's all part of "starve the beast". If you can't kill it, starve it. And you've seen the same things happening within the National Park system as well.

Now, three years ago, a guy who I have tremendous respect for and a number of you probably have worked with, Bob Lamb, when he was Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Office of Management and Budget, Bob is a career guy, was given the Presidential Rank award for just the best meritorious service in the entire Department of the Interior, Bob told me about three years ago that they had done some estimates on the aging of the Interior Department workforce. And I could be wrong on these numbers, but I think Bob told me three years ago they were predicting that close to 40% of the employees in the Department of the Interior would be eligible for retirement within 5 years. 40 percent.

Now you know what is happening to your budgets. You are not being allowed to hire to keep pace with the people that are retiring and leaving. And so what's happening is that the work force is being eroded from within, your budgets are withering, and you know what else is then going to happen: The conservative mantra is first you starve the feds and then you say, "well they can't get the job done anymore, so we gotta contract it out". Gotta contract it out and privatize.

So it is all part of the same thing that is happening. And when I look through the Fish and Wildlife Service ranks, because I was an instructor at the National Wildlife Refuge Academy for 15 years even when I was Assistant Secretary, I could see the declining numbers of people going through the refuge academy. And I would bet the same thing is happening within the National Park system.

So what you have are two things, it is like a perfect storm hitting the park system all at once. You've got this tidal wave of retirements heading your way, and you've got a dwindling number of new people coming in. It is creating a real drain, and a real deplenishment of people that are going to be prepared to take over when that 40% retire and walk out the door. You've got fewer and fewer entry level positions, shrinking bench strength in the middle, and the question then is: How do we maintain the programs you care so much about, and how do we keep the park system afloat?


This is so very true. And what Mr. Barry doesn't mention is the public also sees that the government is incapable or incompetent, and they, too, want programs eliminated or outsourced. Perhaps not those directly affected, but definitely others who say "why do we fund Project X? It's a disaster!"

The public thinks they are seeing tax dollars wasted, but what they are really seeing is underfunded agencies doing the best they can, but ultimately failing because the job is too big.

If you look at the figures these so called right-wing politicians have grown the government to monumental proportions. The federal budget has bloated astronomically under Bush, more so than at any time since the Johnson administration when the Great Society was delivering guns & butter.

If the government is gradually phasing out agencies that it finds less important than overseas imperial war making adventures and slopping the hogs at the trough of the military-industrial complex I think we should see this as an opportunity. There are other entities out there to manage lands as well as better funded state and local governments that could begin to take over many of these currently neglected federal properties. Instead of bemoaning the shrinkage of inefficient and unloved federal behemoths why doesn't Mr. Barry get the Wilderness Society fired up to take over some of this land themselves and put their money where their mouth is? Why spend so much energy trying to resuscitate these models of yesteryears land management?

Future opportunity is nurtured from the ashes of the past.

Something doesn't add up in my simplistic mind. If the neo-cons are starving the beast then why are many of the budgets still going up? Not only are base budgets going up, but program budgets are growing astronomically. Add in the monies that are contributed through non-profit puppet partners. Somebody out there an't tellin the truth.

Granted it's a different world we live in. Years ago a Superintendent saw a need...and took action. Nowadays he must conduct studies, do public scoping, more studies, fight environmental groups in court, do more studies, then accomplish nothing when a new administration changes priorities.

Parks are spending more money than ever. I would guess that payroll budgets are soaring (gotta add in all those positions being paid for with program money) but the entry level positions are drying up in favor of researchers and mid level managers who spend their day trying to figure out how to get even more money.

In a sense "starve the beast" may have its benefits. Tell the guys in charge to get things done with the money they have or we will find someone who can. For every job the NPS advertises there are many highly qualified applicants...there are people who are willing to do the job.

I think the Administration, whoever may control things at any given time, should focus on rewarding more funding to those who do a good job with their current funding. Lets face it the Government is not well known for its business sense

There's a misconception about neoconservatives and conservatives that some of us have who are neither neoconservative nor conservative. The neoconservatives are "neo" precisely because they support American nationalism through imperialism. They see promoting and advancing Americanism as the main thrust of American policy, and so they will gladly build up government when it serves what they perceive as American interests, especially the military industrial complex. They support globalization (there isn't a great deal of difference between a neoliberal and a neoconservative) so long as it promotes American sovereignty. Some have gone so far as to support the exploitation of space for militarization, figuring that American control of space will ultimately promote American interests.

Conservatives (paleo?-conservatives) by contrast in the United States have traditionally favored smaller government. Some are isolationist populist types (a la Pat Buchanan), some are free market global capitalists, but they all share in common the notion that the United States government should be de-centralized, that the role of government is to protect the homeland and to make sure that American business runs smoothly, and should leave the rest to market forces, churches, and charities. They otherwise aren't interested in American imperialism, nation-building, or anything that makes government larger, though they usually have little to say about large corporations, except (in the case of the populist types) those that hurt American small businesses by dealing overseas.

That's a crude distinction, and there are many shades in between, but Bush and his ilk are of the neoconservative strain. Many Bush allies were involved with the Project for the New American Century. They support American imperialism (the spread of freedom - as though freedom were a brand of butter) as the best way to protect and promote American interests. As a result, they don't necessarily have anything against large government expansion but would prefer to promote industries that support the imperial enterprise (and yes, many do use the word "empire" - a talk at the neoconservative-friendly American Enterprise Institute in the past couple years was titled "America is and should be an empire"). So, they talk smaller government when it helps them make the point that the money should be spent elsewhere. However, smaller government is not really their aim, just sometimes a means to an end. It is for these reasons that neoconservative Bill Kristol even suggested that Hillary Clinton might actually be closer to the neoconservative agenda than many of the Republicans running for president.

Now, many conservatives who are not of the libertarian variety still believe in protecting the national parks and fully funding them because they see them as iconic American places - to protect them isn't far different than protecting the flag or other great American institutions. They see them as a kind of national security interest because they are definitional places. For years, Republicans had the funding of national parks in their platform (don't know if they still do). So, it's a complicated question.

Still, on the whole, the playbook of conservatives has been to starve government programs like Welfare, then when they aren't working due to lack of funding, claim they aren't working because of government inefficiency (when in fact, the plan all along was to make them inefficient by taking away the resources they needed to run smoothly). As much as I have my own philosophical bent against the systemic exercise of power from anyone - whether they be governments, corporations, or individuals - it's not hard to see the dirty trick played by savvy conservative politicians to promote a conservative worldview. Unfortunately, people's lives (in the case of welfare, the lives of the poor) and the land, plants, and animals (in the case of the parks) are collateral damage in this war. While I don't believe more funding for the parks is the answer over the long haul, I also think people who think like I do should be very wary of supporting those who are shrinking the funding. If people aren't ready to organize and mobilize from corporate greed taking over the vacuum left by a shrinking government, then the parks will only be worse off. It suggests the need again for grassroots organizing on behalf of places we love (much like we see with Buffalo Field Campaign out in Yellowstone, but only on a greater scale). We can't be left with this devil's choice of bigger and bigger government versus non-transparent NGOs and corporations, whether we are talking about foreign or domestic policy, or the parks in particular.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

Starve? Yeah, like Michael Moore is starving.

Starving? You gotta be s*@tting me!
Why don't you guys do a story on park superintendents' travel...WHERE, WHY, HOW MUCH for accomodations and HOW MUCH is spent on food...then get back to us on the subject of STARVING.

That's a related problem you're describing, and the two issues are by no means mutually exclusive. The fact that there are fewer dollars to go around yet you claim that superintendents haven't changed their tune when it comes to "museum, we see 'em, plus per diem" is MORE of a problem, not a different problem.