Once upon a time, the debate about how we should manage the federal government’s vast estate — 29 percent of the nation’s land and 62 percent of the acreage from the Rockies to the Pacific — was one of the clearest fault lines in American politics.
Democrats (representing environmentalists and urban voters) typically wanted the government to own and preserve as much land as possible while Republicans (representing natural resource industries and the rural communities dependent upon them) wanted the government to quit buying up land and open up what it had for economic use. But not anymore.
Prominent conservative Republicans are now sponsoring legislation to set up one of the largest ongoing land acquisition programs ever seriously considered by Congress. Unfortunately, the environment and the economy will suffer from this new cease-fire in the public lands debate.
The bill in question is “The Conservation and Reinvestment Act of 1999,” a proposal that would dedicate some of the royalties from offshore oil drilling to a special off-budget land acquisition trust fund. About $1 billion of land would probably be bought annually under the Act, quadrupling the amount of money Congress presently spends on land acquisition and relieving environmentalists of ever having to worry about the appropriation process again.
There are a whole host of reasons why going on a land-buying spree is a bad idea. First, the federal government can’t even competently manage what it already owns. Four federal land agencies alone have identified a $12 billion backlog in maintenance and necessary infrastructure expenditures, but politicians win more green votes for buying land than they do for managing it well. Moreover, a mountain of studies from environmentalists themselves document the federal government’s disastrously misguided ecological practices, practices that typically reflect institutional shortcomings, not poor policy decisions.
Second, the federal government already owns 50 percent of America’s softwood timber, 12 percent of the ranch lands, 30 percent of the coal reserves, a large but unquantifiable amount of oil and gas reserves, 90 percent of the copper reserves, 80 percent of the silver reserves, and almost 100 percent of the nation’s nickel. University of Colorado law professor Dale Oesterle observes that this “puts the federal government at the core of our national market system, affecting the price in nationally significant markets and a myriad of down-stream products.” Its economic management of those resources is so poor that the federal government somehow manages to lose about $2 billion a year on land worth nearly $200 billion.
Why then are many Republicans supporting the bill? Because the Act would — for the first time — also share some of the offshore oil royalties with coastal state governments, and the bill’s formula for revenue sharing makes Mississippi and Alaska (home of powerful Congressman Don Young and Senators Frank Murkowski and Trent Lott — three prominent cosponsors of the Act) big winners in the oil royalty sweepstakes. Moreover, money is also handed out annually to state fish and game agencies, which relieves hunters, fishermen, and other recreationalists from the burden of expected increases in excise fees for permits and equipment (fees that are now the agencies’ main source of revenue). Finally, Republicans are desperate to convince voters that they, too, care about the environment, and buying up a bunch of land is a clear and powerful symbol of environmental concern. Who cares if it’s a good idea?
So much for principle or honesty. If the Republicans can’t find the courage to argue for the merits of private land ownership and against the pitfalls of Soviet-style resource socialism, they should at least call for “no net-loss of private property” while they control the Congress. Moreover, they should force environmentalists to say up front how much public land is enough and how much land ought to be kept in private hands. Many suspect that organized environmental lobbies believe that all undeveloped land ought to be bought up by the government if the money’s available. If so, at least we know who stands for what.
In the early 1970s, Richard Nixon signaled the temporary end of debate over economic policy by famously remarking that “we are all Keynesians now.” Republicans are apparently making the same surrender on environmental policy, and this second surrender is as unwarranted and misguided as the first. The ecological and economic case for public land ownership is so threadbare that it will not be long before the public recognizes that the Green emperor has no clothes. Unfortunately, politicians who ought to know better are too busy praising the emperor, not dressing him.