Government Land Grab Takes Us in the Wrong Direction

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

Public opinion polls indicate that many people are concerned about a perceived loss of open spaces, wilderness areas and forests. This despite the fact that only about 5 percent of our land is developed, three-quarters of the population lives on 3.5 percent of the land and more than 5 times as much land is set aside in national parks, wilderness areas, federal forests and federal grazing lands than has been developed.

Never fear, in usual Washington fashion, Congress and the President, being led by public opinion polls rather than evidence, have a big brother solution to this "wilderness shortage:" the United States government - which already owns more than one-third of the land in the U.S. - will buy more land. That's right, congressional Republicans and Democrats are working with the Clinton administration to place more land under government control.

The five plans pending in Congress are similar. Each would spend up to $2.3 billion each year, evidently into eternity, to buy up private land. The money would come from the "Land and Water Conservation Fund," created in 1964 to protect ecologically important areas, using offshore oil and gas royalties.

In the past, the government has consistently shifted royalties to other spending priorities and deficit reduction. Now congress wants to guarantee that a certain amount goes to it each year.

The leading bipartisan bill in Congress would spend up to $2.2 billion each year - 16 percent by local governments, with federal and state governments splitting the remaining 84 percent. This bill is less onerous than others, since it limits federal purchases to land currently located within or adjoining current federal lands, and requires that purchases come from "willing" sellers. There are no such restrictions, however, on states and localities.

All the bill have four problems in common. First, they are constitutionally suspect. Our country's founders wanted government to remain limited. Accordingly, the Constitution authorizes federal land ownership for the establishment of Washington, D.C. and to exercise authority over forts, magazines, arsenals, dock-yards and other needed buildings like courthouses. The federal government ignored the constitution's restrictions in the last century - but there is no reason to further this erosion of limited government. Ask citizens in Western states - in some of which the federal government owns more than 80% of the land - whether local control and a large federal presence are compatible.

Second, every acre removed from private hands is one less acre in productive use. Homes and businesses do more to enhance individual well-being than land limited to uses chosen by Washington-based environmental elitists. In addition, police departments and school districts lose vital property tax revenue - not a good idea at a time when school enrollment is at an all-time high and the country is finally turning the corner on crime.

Though an attractive feature, the willing seller provision is not worth the paper it's printed on. Currently, Washington strictly regulates private property within public lands and land considered valuable as habitat for endangered species or wetlands. The result is that many people cannot build homes or start businesses on their property if the government considers it ecologically valuable. This creates a vast pool of so-called "willing" sellers. It's good that people who suffer such regulatory takings will finally be compensated as the Constitution demands - but it would be better still if they were never put in such a position. If I steal your wedding ring but leave what I consider a fair price on the nightstand, you could hardly be considered a willing seller.

Finally, the government manages its land badly. There is currently a backlog of $8 to $12 billion of maintenance, operations, restoration and fire management projects on the nation's public lands. Since the government mismanages the land it currently owns, it shouldn't take more. Besides, private forests and nature preserves contain more biodiversity, produce more forest regrowth and have cleaner streams - all without using tax dollars. This latter point is important because, lands purchased under the proposed bills would become a drain on present and future taxpayers, since only the initial purchase is covered by the LWCF.

Socialism, including government ownership of land and natural resources, just doesn't work, thus the U.S. government should end this misguided land grab. Let Washington's new pledge be "no net loss of private property." This would promote constitutionally limited government, is family friendly, and supports economic opportunity and environmental quality.