Willing Sellers?

from Liberty Matters Journal

Fall 1999

The proliferation of new and recycled land grab schemes now being presented by the US Congress, specifically the new and improved Land and Water Conservation Fund legislation, will most certainly erode the private land base in America to dangerous levels. For the last 30 years the environmental establishment has devoted literally billions of dollars and countless man-hours to reducing the percentage of privately owned land in the United States. Although they constantly parrot the "save the environment" theme the reality of the situation is that the first, foremost and only efficient protection of the land comes from those individuals and companies that own it and or derive their living from it. Government has always been a second rate steward, the present dilapidated condition of our National Parks is but one example.

The whole concept of government land ownership was anathema to our founding fathers. Considering that the revolutionary war was fought in part over control of the "means of production" it is of little wonder that limited government was the keystone of the new republic. Their concerns resulted in a narrow definition of what government should reasonably be expected to hold title to. The framers in their discussions limited that ownership to military bases, port facilities and the buildings necessary for the operation of government. The concept was so deeply ingrained that it was felt that specific rules concerning the subject were unnecessary.

The right of property is the guardian of every other right, and to deprive people of this, is in fact to deprive them of their liberty. - Arthur Lee of Virginia, 1775

As we approach the 21st Century, would the founders consider the recent actions of this United States Congress treasonous? Fortunately the public has revolted, questioning not only the need for more government land, but the funding programs being crafted to provide the pork which could ultimately push the government into being the majority landowner in this the "land of the free."

Congressional proponents have fallen over themselves in defense of the bills by invoking the mantra of the "willing seller"; trying to convince the doubting public that the billions of dollars involved in these programs will only be used to provide the funds to buy land from people who are begging to have government purchase their land. It evokes images of proper business transactions and the free market at its best. The reality, unfortunately, is something quite different. The phrase has long been used to placate those who would question the motives of the land grabbers. The disturbing part of all this, is that the vast majority of "willing sellers" are created by the government through excessive regulation, inverse condemnation and intimidation.

Of the tools used for the creation of "willing sellers" excessive regulation is by far the most widespread. Regulation was the means of choice identified by the Conservation Fund over 20 years ago when they realized that purchase of coveted tracts of land at market value would be impossible. They and others were quite satisfied to devalue the land in question using restrictions to its use to make it economically burdensome to the recalcitrant owner. Local and State governments were more than willing to appease noisy environmentalists by creating ordinances that severely restricted land use. These restrictions in turn greatly altered historical use patterns. The result was to force the farmer, rancher or timber owner out of business or into bankruptcy. Because of the excessive restrictions, few if any buyers could be found, leaving the property vulnerable to seizure by government for back taxes or sale to land trusts at a fraction of the true market value. Government would acquire the land either through transfer from a land trust or offer to buy it from the owner at a ridiculously low figure. At this point the owner became "willing" only because it was the only game in town. This scenario was repeated hundreds of times across the country.

Creeping regulation in its later stages creates a condition that has a domino effect on private property. As more and more targeted properties fall into government ownership, in areas under attack by environmental interests, the remaining parcels are often surrounded by state or federally owned lands. These inholders are then subject to even more regulation because "actions on the private lands affect the condition of the "public" (i.e. Government) lands."

If all of the regulatory activity still does not result in the defeat of the private landowner, intimidation is the final (and almost always effective) means left in the government’s arsenal. Private landowners are a resilient and sometimes defiant sort. A good many landowners have no intention of selling to anyone, least of all the government. However, when confronted with the threat of direct condemnation of their property, and having been informed that payment prices will be considerably less than current offers, most will finally throw in the towel and accept the pitiful amount fearful that after eminent domain action their situation will be even worse. In fact the U.S. Dept of the Interior has issued what they call an "Involuntary Conversion Information Sheet" which says,

"The Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), like all other Federal Agencies, has the power of eminent domain which allows the use of condemnation to acquire lands and interests in lands for the public good. This power is seldom exercised by the service because it usually acquires land from willing sellers and is not compelled to buy specific habitats within a rigid timeframe. However if your parcel had not been acquired through voluntary negotiation, we could have recommended its acquisition by condemnation."

This document was provided prior to purchase by the government.

In 1994 Mr. Bo Thott of Cutler, Maine, a member of the Washington County Alliance, interviewed a number of his neighbors involved in the federal governments attempt to federalize a good part of the Maine Coast. He found very few were what could be called "willing" sellers, almost all had been threatened in some way or another before selling to the feds. Mr. Thott then embarked on a project to contact all landowners throughout the country who had sold land to the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The project started with a FOIA request for the names and addresses of all of those having transferred land to FWS. As the project continued it became apparent that a large percentage of the respondents to Thott’s inquiries were in fact not willing sellers as authorities would have us believe but, indeed, were intimidated and financially forced to transfer title to the government. Mr. Thott expanded his investigation to the BLM and other agencies, however, by the time the first report was issued the government refused to supply any further names, and stonewalled any pending FOIA requests.

The conclusions reached by Mr. Thott, and anyone else familiar with government land purchases, is that the "willing seller" argument is false and was constructed to anesthetize the uninformed public from the very real dangers of government land acquisition.

As we approach government ownership of over 50% of the land of the United States, stop and think for a moment what a 51% stock position in a corporation portends. Are we to be masters over our government or are we serfs, no better than the inhabitants of many third world countries are today. The rush to increase government land holdings has never been about environmental protection… It is about power and the control of the means of production. The casualties will be the free market and individual liberty.

It was the axiom of our founding fathers and free Englishmen before them that the right to own and control property was the foundation of all other liberties. Property Rights are central to liberty and should never be trampled upon. -Ronald Reagan


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