Have you heard about the "America gives back" movement? I say we kick it off by giving back that salmon plane. The idea goes like this:...

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Have you heard about the “America gives back” movement?

I say we kick it off by giving back that salmon plane. The idea goes like this: To help rebuild the wreckage left by Hurricane Katrina, all regions of the nation should voluntarily give up some recently begotten federal largess.

Pushed by some quixotic folks up in Alaska, the premise is to return this year’s federal pork — the museums, parking garages, horse trails and other less-than-urgent projects doled out by Congress to the tune of billions of dollars.

A letter at the americagivesback.org Web site captures the spirit: “This money, a gift from the people of Alaska, will represent more than just material aid; it will be a symbol for our beleaguered democracy.”

The state’s congressman, Don Young, had other words for it: “Ignorance and stupidity,” he called it, as well as “the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Which brings me back to the salmon plane.

Last weekend, Seattle’s Alaska Airlines rolled out its new “Salmon-Thirty-Salmon,” the world’s most intricately decorated jet. It took a crew of 30 — including three Hollywood set-design specialists — almost a month to paint a giant chinook on both sides.

It cost five times the standard rate. The airline’s marketing director, Greg Latimer, enthused: “There is no way we could even entertain such a project if we had to incur this cost ourselves.”

So — and you knew this was coming — we picked up the tab. The paint job was paid for with a $500,000 federal grant designed to encourage people to eat Alaska salmon.

The Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board, which made the grant, has doled out $29 million the past two years, all of it taxpayer money to urge people to buy Alaska salmon.

“Is there something wrong with these fish that warrants such an expensive program to convince us to eat them?” wondered Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in 2004.

He doesn’t know the half of it. It turns out there are two taxpayer-supported groups marketing Alaska salmon. The other one, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, gets $5 million a year from taxpayers. (It also gets about half its budget from fishing companies.)

The government subsidies are an attempt to prop up a fishing industry that is being undercut on price by fish farms.

I feel for the fishermen. But we’ve completely lost sight of the purpose of national government when it’s going around commissioning flying billboards.

That’s why we need to give it back. It would be the first flicker of understanding that with the Gulf states in tatters, a war and an $8 trillion national debt, some sacrifice might be required. It would be a sign of resolve that we can pay our way, rather than leaving all our bills to the kids.

I realize we can’t literally give back the pork plane. It’s our flying folly, and we’re stuck with it.

We may not even be allowed to return money we just got for other low-priority projects — $1.2 million for a Welcome Center in Enumclaw, $200,000 for a streetcar in Issaquah, $800,000 for a trail in Snohomish County, and on and on.

But pending in Congress right now, in this season of tragedy and debts, is a new $10 million earmark to extend this salmon-marketing campaign. That money will buy more of the same — more market studies, more ads, perhaps even more flying billboards, all to try to get you to eat the correct salmon.

If we can’t toss that one back, we can’t say no to anything.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.