Public Lands: The endless range war


Last week, U.S. Judge Edward Lodge blocked enforcement of a Clinton-era regulation that banned road building and logging in vast stretches of national forest. The regulation would have largely put the land off-limits to commercial uses and, arguably, even fire-fighting efforts. With his ruling, Judge Lodge jumped into the middle of a decades-old war over the management of America's public lands.

Given the federal government's ownership of one-third of the land in the United States, including a majority of the property in the ornery West, it's obvious why conflict over the use of that land is almost inevitable. Miners and backpackers, ranchers and environmentalists -- different people favor different uses for public land, and as long as that land is centrally managed from Washington, D.C., they'll battle to swing policy in their direction with each change of administration.

In any face-off, it's tempting to look for black hats and white hats. However, according to Karl Hess Jr., senior ecologist for the Thoreau Institute, when it comes to disputes over land use, there are plenty of gray hats to go around. Said Hess in a 1995 article for Reason:

The American West, and its perennial wars with the federal government, cannot be summed up in a good guy/bad guy melodrama ... What is set forth by sagebrush rebels as a war of liberation from a domineering federal government may, in fact, be nothing more than a regional feud among warring siblings over which pampered child gets the federal spoils.
Holly Lippke Fretwell, of the Political Economy Research Center (PERC), agrees. According to her, private users of public lands have traditionally had a very good deal. "Twenty percent of the nation's land area ... is controlled by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management," and "from 1994 through 1996 these agencies lost an average of $290 million on timber, $66 million on grazing, and $355 million on recreation."

Who made up those losses? The American taxpayers, of course.

Those subsidized activities can do real harm, too. Bureaucrats have strange incentives in the management of lands that they don't own. Timber and grazing have often been promoted on arid lands that were, at best, marginal for those uses.

Said Thoreau's Hess:

Forests that gods themselves would find difficult and unprofitable to harvest are flagged and marked by Forest Service timber cruisers. And rangelands that have a market value of $30 per acre, and a forage value measured in cents, are treated like Manhattan real estate.

But if taxpayers have historically been asked to underwrite economically and environmentally iffy logging and ranching operations, in recent years they've granted their favors to the opposition. Under the Clinton administration, federal policy turned to expanding government land holdings, excluding most human activity and transforming vast stretches of the U.S. into museums of cactus, trees and rocks.

During the Clinton years, in addition to the road-building ban (which was later endorsed by the Bush administration), the White House unilaterally transformed areas such as the Grand Staircase-Escalante region of Utah into "national monuments" subject to restrictive rules. Ranchers who had enjoyed the government's favor for years found themselves receiving very different treatment. The Washington Post reported that in the summer of 2000, federal agents swooped down on cattle herds in helicopters, airlifted them out of newly protected land, and then billed the owners for tens of thousands of dollars.

Granting that many traditional users of public lands had sweetheart deals, was this really necessary?

It's hard to see how. Remember that 105 million acres of federal land are designated as wilderness and 232 million more acres are restricted for parks and wildlife refuges. Throw in private land subject to federal regulation and you have an area twice the size of Texas that's off-limits to anything much more intense than backpacking.

That's a hard blow to regions of the country where so much of the terrain is held by the federal government -- over 60% of Utah and over 80% of Nevada, for example -- that economic activity must necessarily take place on federal land. Expand federal holdings or impose tighter restrictions on the use of existing public turf, and you hand recreational users and people who want to leave as much land as possible in a wild state a vast tax-supported playground. That guarantees more battles with locals who seek resources and jobs in those vast regions.

Is there a way out of the endless scrapping over who gets to play with Uncle Sam's enormous estates?

Writing for High Country News, Daniel Kemmis of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West said that conflict is inevitable as long as policy is set nationally. With each change of administration, "public land policy is likely to swing wildly from one end of the ideological spectrum to the other."

Suggesting that there's not necessarily one "right" policy, Kemmis proposes that "ideologically diverse groups of westerners [be] given a decade or so to manage the public land under a congressionally imposed mandate to manage for ecological sustainability."

That makes sense. If you transfer lands to local control, you make room for a variety of policies that suit local conditions. Just as important, you might avoid replicating mistakes across the entire country.

But having recognized that the problem lies in federal domination of so much of the nation's land, will a few timid experiments in local control really do the trick?

The Cato Institute's Terry L. Anderson, Vernon L. Smith, and Emily Simmons don't think so. They propose "auctioning off all public lands over 20 to 40 years." Instead of offering the land for money, they would distribute "public land share certificates," which could be freely transferable up until the auction itself.

Robert Franciosi of Arizona's Goldwater Institute looks to an alternative that's already in wide use around the U.S. He endorses land trusts: "private, nonprofit organizations devoted to preserving land in its natural state."

The lands held by the trusts might be owned outright, or preserved by conservation easements purchased from title holders. Trusts can maintain land as wilderness, or manage the land as a source of jobs and resources -- whatever makes sense locally. And the trusts are private, avoiding the concerns inherent in centralized government control.

Of course, these proposals are unlikely to please folks who like their subsidized deals. Paying for what you want isn't as lucrative as letting other folks carry the cost.

But letting people acquire proprietary interest in land that is now up for political grabs just might head off the endless cycles of battles over who gets to use America's real estate.


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