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 wantedthe government to own and preserve as much land as possible whileRepublicans (representing natural resource industries and the ruralcommunities dependent upon them) wanted the government to quit buying upland and open up what it had for economic use. But not anymore.
Prominent conservative Republicans are now sponsoring legislation to set upone of the largest ongoing land acquisition programs ever seriouslyconsidered by Congress. Unfortunately, the environment and the economy willsuffer from this new cease-fire in the public lands debate.
The bill in question is "The Conservation and Reinvestment Act of 1999," aproposal that would dedicate some of the royalties from offshore oildrilling to a special off-budget land acquisition trust fund. About $1billion of land would probably be bought annually under the Act, quadruplingthe amount of money Congress presently spends on land acquisition andrelieving environmentalists of ever having to worry about the appropriationprocess again.
There are a whole host of reasons why going on a land-buying spreeis a badidea. First, the federal government can't even competently manage what italready owns. Four federal land agencies alone have identified a $12billion backlog in maintenance and necessary infrastructure expenditures,but politicians win more green votes for buying land than they do formanaging it well. Moreover, a mountain of studies from environmentaliststhemselves document the federal government's disastrously misguidedecological practices, practices that typically reflect institutionalshortcomings, not poor policy decisions.
Second, the federal government already owns 50 percent of America'ssoftwood timber, 12 percent of the ranch lands, 30 percent of the coalreserves, a large but unquantifiable amount of oil and gas reserves, 90percent of the copper reserves, 80 percent of the silver reserves, andalmost 100 percent of the nation's nickel. University of Colorado lawprofessor Dale Oesterle observes that this "puts the federal government atthe core of our national market system, affecting the price in nationallysignificant markets and a myriad of down-stream products." Its economicmanagement of those resources is so poor that the federal government somehowmanages 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 withcoastal state governments, and the bill's formula for revenue sharing makesMississippi and Alaska (home of powerful Congressman Don Young and SenatorsFrank Murkowski and Trent Lott -- three prominent cosponsors of the Act) bigwinners in the oil royalty sweepstakes. Moreover, money is also handed outannually to state fish and game agencies, which relieves hunters, fishermen,and other recreationalists from the burden of expected increases in excisefees for permits and equipment (fees that are now the agencies' main sourceof revenue). Finally, Republicans are desperate to convince voters thatthey, too, care about the environment, and buying up a bunch of land is aclear and powerful symbol of environmental concern. Who cares if it's agood idea?
So much for principle or honesty. If the Republicans can't find the courageto argue for the merits of private land ownership and against the pitfallsof Soviet-style resource socialism, they should at least call for "nonet-loss of private property" while they control the Congress. Moreover,they should force environmentalists to say up front how much public land isenough and how much land ought to be kept in private hands. Many suspectthat organized environmental lobbies believe that all undeveloped land oughtto be bought up by the government if the money's available. If so, at leastwe know who stands for what.
In the early 1970s, Richard Nixon signaled the temporary end of debate overeconomic policy by famously remarking that "we are all Keynesians now."Republicans are apparently making the same surrender on environmentalpolicy, and this second surrender is as unwarranted and misguided as thefirst. The ecological and economic case for public land ownership is sothreadbare that it will not be long before the public recognizes that theGreen emperor has no clothes. Unfortunately, politicians who ought to knowbetter are too busy praising the emperor, not dressing him.