The federal government owns more than one quarter of the land in the nation, about 640 million acres. The holdings are concentrated in the West, where it owns about half of the 11 westernmost states.
The policy issues surrounding federal land are complex, but there is a good argument that much of the land would be better managed, and would generate more value for Americans, if it was transferred to state governments and the private sector. There is a movement in the West to gain more local control over federal lands because the economic and environmental decisions made in faraway Washington often do no reflect local needs. Randy O’Toole and I wrote about some of these issues here.
The “action fund” of the Center for American Progress (CAP) recently issued a study on federal land issues. If you want an example of how D.C. policy debates can become harsh and mean-spirited, this is it. I don’t know how the two political parties will come together on reforming anything if leading liberal organizations like this one are spreading such vitriol.
Here are some of the words and phrases that CAP uses for those favoring devolving or privatizing federal lands: “radical,” “fringe,” “reckless,” “Koch brothers,” “anti-government extremists,” “land seizure movement,” “far right wing,” “white supremacists,” “militias,” “extreme antigovernment beliefs,” “extreme elements,” “dog-whistle language,” “fossil fuel interests,” “fringe militia groups,” “radical members of the Republican base.” I’m surprised they didn’t throw in cannibals, bloodsuckers, and Nazis.
The purpose of the report seems to be to tie GOP presidential candidates to these phrases. It includes quotes from the candidates on land issues, presumably the most extreme ones they could find. Carly Fiorina is quoted, “The federal government does a lousy job of managing forests. The private sector does a much better job of managing forests. The federal government controls too much land in this country.” They quote Ted Cruz saying, “We should be reducing the amount of federal land that the BLM controls and the amount of land that the federal government owns.” And CAP says that Chris Christie even wanted to contract out management of New Jersey’s state golf courses and park concessions. Wow, extreme stuff!
The weird thing about the report is that the coauthors, Nicole Gentile and Matt Lee-Ashley, seem to have experience on federal land issues. They should know that there is some policy agreement on many land and resource issues between small-government conservatives and libertarians on the one hand, and liberals and environmentalists on the other. The underpricing of federal resources—such as water, timber, and grazing land— is seen as bad policy by experts across the political spectrum. Libertarians and environmentalists also agree on the negative environmental effects of farm subsidies, and on the poor environmental record of federal agencies such as the Department of Energy and Army Corps of Engineers.
From a historical perspective, devolving or privatizing federal lands is not the least bit radical or extreme. For the nation’s first century and a half, the general policy of the government was to unload federal lands by giving them away or selling them to state governments, businesses, and individuals.
As CRS discusses in this report, the federal government privatized 792 million acres of land between 1781 and 1940. One of the “radical” and “extremist” privatizers during that era was Abraham Lincoln, who signed into law the Homestead Act of 1862. On top of those transfers, the federal government has handed over to state governments 470 million acres of land over the decades.
In sum, the CAP report is embarrassing. The authors seem unable to believe that nonliberals could be concerned about the environment and sound land management. In reality, the authors’ end goals on such policies may overlap with the supposed extremists they decry more than they realize.