The Interior Department's Fall

by John G. Lankford

PFNS, Alamogordo, NM When Congress returns from recess in September, the
Interior Department will squirm.

In an autumn when many see the federal government as a bloated monster in
meltdown, when more are uneasy due to the War on Terrorism and the
problematic economy, and westerners are enraged over record forest fires,
that department has managed to don a flashing neon sign reading "Kick Me."

For a decade and more, Congress has both appeased and exploited citizen
anger by calling top officials of government bureaus on the carpet in
televised hearings, scolding them fiercely for public consumption, and later
quietly raising their budgets. In 1994, the Departments of Education, Energy
and Commerce were under assault. Later, grandstanders attacked the Treasury
Department's Internal Revenue Service. All survived and indeed prospered,
but they did so in quieter times.

The Interior Department was traditionally a tranquil fief, taking care of
the nation's parks and other federal real estate, and handling relations
with Indian tribes. But it was quietly infiltrated by fervent environmental
absolutists and, as a close and hard-fought off-year election approaches,
their antics have made it a laser-sighted target.

From September until November's election, members of Congress not
grandstanding for themselves will be doing so for their parties, seeking
ways to break the virtually even power split in government. Because people
vote more readily against than for, they will be jostling to be seen as
champions of the righteously indignant. The Interior Department is emerging
as the season's most conspicuous single object of anger, and there is no
compelling national need for it to survive. Almost all it does, individual
States can do.

There is a mammoth state/federal Comprehensive Everglades Restoration
Project floundering in Florida, one that has cost and will cost billions.
There is a little patch of slightly high ground on the edge of the
Everglades National Park, officially designated the "8.5 Square Mile Area"
(8.5 SMA). Gardeners, small-plot farmers, and shopkeepers live there. Some
claim, and others deny, the 8.5 SMA obstructs all or part of the Everglades

For nearly two decades, Congress has held the 8.5 SMA does not and provided
for its protection from Everglades waters raised by the Project with a
little levee-and-canal system. The Army Corps of Engineers was to build the
levee and canal system and the Interior Department's National Park Service
was to pay the federal share of its cost from money Congress appropriated.
But the little flood protection system was not built, the Project was
augmented and modified, and the Park Service always refused to release the
money for the Area's flood protection. The Service wants to buy it,
voluntarily if possible, and by eminent domain if necessary. To that agency
the inhabitants are virtual, though not literal "inholders," owners of
private property surrounded by National Park or Forest.

In order to get on with the vast Everglades Project, the Corps of Engineers
acquiesced and signaled intent to proceed with its own "Alternative 6D."
That is a compromise plan to acquire part of the 8.5 SMA as a Park "buffer"
and protect the rest. The plan assumes groundwater will forbear to seek its
own level in the protected part, or pumps to overcome seepage would be
adequate and affordable.

But 8.5 SMA residents sued and won a federal district court judgment holding
Congress had never intended to authorize eminent domain buyouts in the 8.5
SMA, and Alternative 6D could not proceed. In exasperation or churlishness,
the Engineers last week declared the entire Everglades Project at a

The plight of the residents, whose land is often and, they charge,
deliberately flooded by Project-elevated waters, drew the attention of The
Paragon Foundation. Having caused revision or reversal of the Interior
Department's Park Service and Bureau of Land Management programs in Klamath
Falls, Oregon; Jarbidge River in Elko County, Nevada; and Darby, Ohio;
Paragon made the 8.5 SMA its next campaign. The Foundation and allies
declared a "Sawgrass Rebellion" and scheduled transnational caravans
scheduled to converge for a rally near the 8.5 SMA October 17-19.

The Interior Department's 2003 funding bill (HR 5093), passed by the House
and ready for floor debate and vote in the Senate, is the subject of a
tug-of-war between federal land-taking advocates and private property
protectors in Congress. A clause that would annul the federal court's
decision and mandate the Engineers' building the 6D Alternative "without
delay" and "notwithstanding any other provision of law" was inserted in
committee in the House, but struck before passage and referral to the
Senate. Florida Senator Bob Graham (D) is considering an effort to restore
the clause.

To aggravate the imbroglio, that bill is one means eyed by western members
of Congress seeking to expedite firefighting, fire-damage relief, and future
fire prevention funding. There is pressure to pass it quickly, one reason it
was not referred to committee in the Senate.

If Graham succeeds, the House may not pass the bill. If it does, the
President may not sign it. If he does, he will vindicate years of
bureaucratic defiance of Congress. But Bush has just announced a veto of a
$5 billion supplemental appropriations bill he considers profligate. By way
of his Homeland Security initiative, he is trying to restore subordination
of some of the executive branch's bureaucracies to the President. Interior's
Bureau of Indian Affairs is also scrambling to explain the disappearance of
as much as $10 billion in Indian trust funds.

Now the Park Service has galvanized property rights defenders again with
studies looking to the eminent domain taking of almost 336 square miles of
Santa Barbara County, California. The Park Service goal is to add a
provisionally named Gaviota National Park to Channel Islands National Park
and Point Reyes National Seashore, which are already in their grasp.

Among those furious is the formidable American Land Rights Association and
Darby, Ohio struggle veteran Julie Smithson. In a comment letter filed as
part of the Park proposal study, Smithson compassed the dissolution of the
Park Service and the Interior Department.

Thanks to bureaucratic blundering, overzealousness, and political ineptitude
at Interior, she may get her wish.


PFNS is a public service of The Paragon Foundation, Alamogordo, NM

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in this message is distributed under fair use without profit or payment for non-profit research and educational purposes only. [Ref.]


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