Who Owns America?
Floy Lilley, J.D.
'Who owns America' is both the title of a current book by Harvey
and a good question to ask.
Exact ownership figures are difficult to come by. Landownership changes
constantly and dramatically. It does not sit still to be counted.
are over fifty-eight thousand governments in our country. Not all
maintained, or recorded in the same manner, or made available. The
acreage counts come from the Department of Agriculture, but, of course,
their numbers do not include non-farm numbers. So, no certainties
possible, but approximations will suffice.
Best tallies place about forty to forty-four percent of the land area
these United States in the public column. That counts local, state
federal government land. What can be said about the remaining fifty-six
sixty percent that falls in the private column? Jacobs, referencing
study by Geisler, writes that seventy-five percent of all of that
acreage is in the hands of the top 5% of landowners. Those are "people"
like Champion International Paper who counts one million acres of
within its total holdings.
The stunning figure is that 78% of all landowners hold title to a
three percent of the private acres. As Jacobs has put it, "Despite
perception of widespread landownership among America's peoples, the
study found private land in the United States in the hands of only
million owners. Nothing in the last two decades suggests that this
of private landownership is changing for the better."
If five percent of thirty-four million people hold title to the bulk
private real property, only 1.7 million people own most of America.
That's who owns America.
It gets messier for us advocates of private property rights.
Private ownership advocates, alert to regulatory takings, appear
And beguiled by a modern ritual of property hara-kari known as conservation
easement. This freshest destruction of the fundamental stick in our
of real property rights is, like hara-kari, self-inflicted. Willingly,
voluntarily and deliberately, landowners -- large in numbers and small
holdings -- are signing away the basic stick that is owner choice
use and disposition.
There would certainly exist no building on a University of Texas campus
from which I write if our great-great grandfathers had snarled up
in proscriptive and perpetual conservation easements. There would
University of Texas campus. Which of your homes and offices could
Are conservation easements the coin of land trusts or the coin of
agents? Bruce Yandle of Clemson University argues that they are too
to the government. The Nature Conservancy's (TNC) record of offering
benefit to owners who sell at a loss and then TNC gaining a "profit"
that land is resold to the federal government has prompted some, including
this author, to refer to the Nature Conservancy as "pimps for
Just show me the records. Show me how many pieces of private land
with a conservation easement, transferred to land trusts, and finally
transferred to the federal government. TNC earns $10 million per year
sales of such property to the feds. Are there any heirs out there
won't eventually just get tired of paying taxes on land they can't
future development? Their land will end up federal land. We all know
beautifully managed it will be then.
But, before it eventually becomes federal land, land under conservation
easements is still counted categorically as private. "Some 17
acres of U.S. land is now controlled by land trusts. That's a lot
farmland, and open space, an amount close to the size of South Carolina,"
Yandle concludes in a December 1999 PERC Report. Those acres are private
In name only. The right of land use choice is forever, in perpetuity,
to any future owner.
Proponents of conservation easements point to Ducks Unlimited as the
performer in this politically correct field. Although Ducks Unlimited
not always been good friends of water rights, I will call them good
until they begin to stop hunting rights. That litmus test will show
they, too, have crossed the line.
This piecemeal nationalizing of America has picked up pace. "Prior
there were fewer than 40 land trusts in the United States. There are
more than 1200 land trusts operating across the 50 states and U.S.
territories (Land Trust Alliance)," Yandle's research reveals.
chief driver behind this rush from rights is our death tax, repeal
the death tax.
Show me what happens to the value of land with a perpetual cloud upon
title. Will its income stream rise? Will it be more valuable? Or,
your conservation easement mark you as an easy future picking for
It gets messier.
Clear pictures of even more clouded titles loom. Clouds will form
these five major elements:
1. The Conservation and Reinvestment Act of 1999. The land grab bill
called CARA is a hot pork plate about to be accepted or rejected.
Of American Land Rights Association documents daily CARA's unintended
upon private landowners.
2. New funds for acquiring wetlands. Millions in matching funds are
already in existence for wetlands.
3. Fresh funds for transportation enhancements like bike trails. The
Transportation Equity Act provides $630 million for greenways and
4. Potential designation of Kyoto Lands to sequester carbon dioxide.
6th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Convention on
Change will present the implementation facts about land use rules
sequestering carbon dioxide to the member dignitaries this November
5. Newly proposed Forest Service Land Use Planning Regulations with
potential to guide even land use planning on private land nationwide.
Forest Service's new management plan is a NO MANAGEMENT plan.
The fifth cloud formation deserves a few extra notes. If the forest
regulations are permitted to wrap themselves around the proposed core
of "ecological sustainability," then "good" forestry
practices will mean
"no" forestry practices.
All of the fine skills that forest service agents have in their tool
will be disallowed.
"Keep Human Hands Off" is the mantra of ecological sustainability.
away, blow down and burn up will be the forest practice across the
"Keep Out" is the regulatory sign even today within 150
feet of streams.
In hilly terrain, this Best Management Practice restricts much land.
issues prohibit any logging within any high water mark, but exactly
elevation gets you above that shoreline? For any potential upland
and bird habitat anti-logging rules already constrict management skills
According to Dr. Kent Adair, retired Forestry faculty member of Stephen
Austin State University in Nacogdoches, TX, politics is driving the
harassment of human forest management. Adair reports that the federal
agency OSHA has been entering east Texas forests after logging operations
and measuring hinge wood visible on stumps to ascertain if the length
the hinge wood reflects that the tree was felled in an occupationally
fashion. Unexpected fines are then levied on companies. When asked
OSHA felt inspired to start up this new inspection, Adair speculates
environmentalists desire a stack of sins, like dramatic fines, that
create the picture of a poor environmental performance record for
Governor Bush as he challenges Vice President Gore.
Perhaps the better question to have asked is not "Who owns America,"
"Why does owning America matter?"
Adam Smith took for granted that everyone understood why private ownership
matters. Private ownership of intellectual property today is propelling
the greatest wealth creation engine the world has ever seen. Private
personal property, like our money, is an intellectual issue that is
bound to be revisited
and affirmed in the near future. But, the present state of real property
in America says we have lost this understanding as it entails real
A fundamental principle operates for all three types of property.
principle is that unless a man can keep what he produces, he is unwilling
to work hard. As long as governments take the fruits of his labor,
knows his life is no better than that of a slave. As long as other
whimsically and arbitrarily claim his efforts as their rights, no
has the longer time horizon necessary to make his own efforts worthwhile.
Private property is the key to human dignity.
Floy Lilley is Program Manager at the Murchison Chair of Free Enterprise
At the University of Texas at Austin, and Vice Chair of Sovereignty
International. This aticle is based upon her remarks made to Southern
Hardwood Forest Research Group, Feb.17, 2000, Stoneville, MS.