NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

An Imaginary "Wilderness Shortage"

September 21, 1999

By any reasonable measure, the federal government is not land poor. Yet congressional Republicans and Democrats are teeming up with the Clinton administration to place more of America under federal control.

Five plans are pending in Congress to spend up to $2.3 billion every year -- presumably forever -- to buy up private land. The money would come from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The fund draws on the government's offshore oil and gas royalties. In the past, the government has consistently shifted these royalties to fund other spending priorities and to reduce the deficit.

Now, Congress wants to guarantee that a certain amount goes to the fund each year for land acquisition. The leading bipartisan bill in Congress would allocate up to $2.2 billion each year -- 16 percent funded by local governments, with federal and state governments splitting the remaining 84 percent.

Yet, far from there being a shortage of public lands, there are government lands in abundance.

  • The U.S. government already owns more than one-third of America.
  • Since only about 5 percent of our lands are developed, there cannot be a wilderness shortage.
  • Three-quarters of the U.S. population lives on only 3.5 percent of our land.
  • More than five times as much land is set aside in national parks, wilderness areas, federal forests and federal grazing lands than has been developed.

Critics of this latest attempted land grab fault the proposal on a number of grounds. Wanting government to remain limited, our country's founders specified in the Constitution strict limitations on government acquisitions of land. Moreover, every acre removed from private hands is one less acre in productive use.

Certain lands privately held are so encumbered by federal regulations that owners cannot build homes on their own property. Finally, government has proved a poor steward of the lands it already owns -- witness the fact that there is currently a backlog of $8 billion to $12 billion worth of maintenance, operations, restoration and fire-management projects needed.

Source: H. Sterling Burnett (National Center for Policy Analysis), "The Government's Continuing Land Grab," Investor's Business Daily, September 21, 1999.


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