Grade school children are typically taught Woody Guthrie’s folk song “This Land Is Your Land.” The catchy ditty’s modern form omits several political verses reflecting the writer’s communist leanings. What remains are verses with sweet, if rather generic, descriptions of American geography that end with the refrain, “This land was made for you and me.” But while this land may have been made for you and me, it’s increasingly owned and controlled by the federal government.
The federal government today owns or manages about 650 millions acres, or around 30% of all land area in the United States. Even excluding Indian lands, that’s still more than the combined areas of France, Spain, Germany, Poland, Italy, the United Kingdom, Austria, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Belgium. Most federally owned land is located in the western U.S., where there are multiple states where more than half of the area within their borders belongs to the federal government. The most extreme case is Nevada, with almost 85% of the state actually being federal property.
The American people are being denied the full benefits of these lands, much of which has been grossly mismanaged, or contains natural resources locked away from development and use. It’s time to return it to the people. As much as possible should be sold off to pay down the debt, while what remains should be turned over to state and local governments more closely accountable to citizens.
It’s true that some of this land is accessible to the public for personal enjoyment, though the National Park Service manages only 12% of federal land. More falls under the Bureau of Land Management (37%), the Forest Service (28%) and the Fish and Wildlife Service (14%). But even with parks ostensibly held for public enjoyment, government caretakers seem to treat the public with contempt. This was in evidence during 2013′s quasi-government shutdown (where most federal workers kept working and, measured by spending, amounted to about 17% of government activities actually shuttered).
In a clear effort by the administration to spite the public, the National Park Service sought during the shutdown to close off everything in sight regardless of whether it was necessary or they had authority to do so. This included a number of private businesses operating without federal support.
Parks like the Claude Moore Colonial Farm that operate on public land but are privately run and funded were left alone during previous shutdowns, but were targeted for closure by a petty and vindictive Obama administration. The Farm’s Managing Director noted, “in previous budget dramas, the farm has always been exempted, since the NPS provides no staff or resources to operate the farm. But this year, NPS went out of its way to shut down the farm.” Worst of all, she faulted the government that used “staff they don’t have the money to pay to evict visitors from a park site that operates without costing them any money.”
I personally witnessed similar mind-boggling and asinine actions. The George Washington Parkway that runs along the Potomac River features periodic pull off zones for the public to enjoy the scenic view. These are really nothing more than parking lots along the road, and they require no staffing. So naturally, during the shutdown NPS blocked them off. They literally shutdown parking spaces.
NPS politicization is nothing new. In 1969 the agency led to the coining of the phrase “Washington Monument Strategy,” when it shut down the elevator to the Washington Monument to bully Congress into restoring budget cuts.
A government that uses its resources to inflict pain on the public as leverage for partisan political purposes has no business being left in charge of such resources.
It’s not just what happened during the shutdown that suggests a problem, however. Federal mismanagement runs much deeper and promotes inefficiencies. The Bureau of Land Management has encouraged over grazing through below market fees. Worse, Fish and Wildlife (FWS) is tasked with monitoring endangered species, but some of these species are only threatened because of the actions of FWS. The black-footed ferret was endangered after FWS spent decades poisoning millions of prairie dogs, their primary food source.
Likewise, FWS claims as a success the restoration of the Utah prairie dog, which FWS was actively poisoning right up until its listing as an endangered species. Once the poisoning stopped, their status miraculously improved. The bull trout was similarly listed as threatened after FWS-funded programs actively poisoned the trout to encourage non-native species more attractive to anglers. In response to the listing, FWS began poisoning those same non-native species to reintroduce the bull trout. All that’s missing from this comical display of ineptitude are competing Orwellian declarations that FWS has always been at war with either the non-native species or the bull trout, depending on which it is poisoning at the time.
The grossest display of federal incompetence may be in wildfire control. The Forest Service’s one-size-fits-all approach and overall mismanagement contributes to estimates that 190 million acres are at risk of catastrophic fires, leading to what UC Berkeley fire scientist Scott Stephens calls “a train-wreck.” Thanks to pressure from environmental groups and onerous regulations, there’s too little logging and too much brush, which provides fuel for megafires.
The government’s approach to land management also has a real impact on the pocket books of average Americans.
The relative lack of oil production on federal lands, for instance, has ripples through the economy. Energy is needed for most every stage of the production process — from raw materials collection, to manufacturing, to delivery — and high energy prices are reflected in the final costs of goods which Americans rely upon for a high standard of living.
The relief that Americans have seen at the gas pumps in recent months thanks to technological developments allowing for profitable extraction of once inaccessible shale could likewise have been much more significant, or come sooner. Almost all of the growth in production has come from private lands, while misguided prohibitions, horribly slow permitting processes, and endless red tape prevent further development on federal lands, even where environmental concerns are low or non-existent.
Even today the Obama administration is angling to squirrel away 12 million more acres from the people by expanding environmental prohibitions on drilling in Alaska. Expanded energy exploration has strong bipartisan support in Alaska, where both the risks and benefits are most concentrated. But spurred on by extreme environmental groups, Obama asserts he knows better than those closest to the issue.
Yet the evidence is clear: the federal government doesn’t know best. It’s track record on land management is poor. It should be divesting property rather than acquiring more.
There are obviously a lot of magnificent natural treasures within the United States that deserve to be preserved for public enjoyment. But those that are truly valued by the public are capable of receiving voluntary support, and need not rely on coercive tax transfers.
We see that happening already. Many parks and historic sites are managed privately today, operated by nonprofits that rely on philanthropic contributions. This includes the historic site of Mount Vernon, home to George Washington, the nation’s first President and Founding Father who warned repeatedly against the abuses of government and the never ending desire for power of those who hold office. More parks and attractions should follow this model. Other land can be shifted to local and state control where there is greater accountability and public wishes are more likely to be accurately reflected, or sold off to those better prepared and incentivized to provide for its care.
Brian Garst is a political scientist, commentator, and advocate for free markets and individual liberty. He also blogs at BrianGarst.com and you can find him on Twitter @BrianGarst.
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