Alliance of feds, activist groups threatens rural America

Published March 1, 2002

One of the most potent political alliances to emerge in the United States in recent years is carrying out a well-coordinated and unrelenting assault on the nation’s rural communities. If allowed to continue their campaign unchallenged, these forces will forever change the face of rural America–and not for the better.

Big government, big environment

The alliance between powerful federal regulatory agencies and wealthy environmental groups poses a serious threat to the livelihood of farmers, ranchers, loggers, and other property owners.

Selective enforcement of the Endangered Species Act by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, often triggered by lawsuits brought by environmental groups, has shut down logging and mining operations and kept property owners from deriving economic benefits from their land. Arbitrary application of wetlands regulations, massive government land purchases to “protect” the environment, and the “reintroduction” of wolves and other carnivores have had the same effect. Though tactics vary, the ultimate goal is to drive people off their land.

The Nature Conservancy, for example, has been acquiring land for half a century and now has 12 million acres in the U.S. Purchasing land is no problem for an organization that took in $786.8 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2000.

Few people realize that much of the land The Nature Conservancy buys is simply transferred from private to government ownership. According to Ron Arnold and Alan Gottlieb of the Center for Free Enterprise, The Nature Conservancy sells about two-thirds of the land it purchases to the federal government. Thousands of acres of private land, and the revenues it generates for local governments, thus disappear each year and become part of the growing federal estate.

Another well-heeled group, the Conservation Fund, prides itself on “protecting” Civil War battlefields. In the 1990s, the Conservation Fund teamed up with the U.S. Park Service to expand the boundaries of the Antietam National Battlefield Park in Maryland.

According to local resident Ann Corcoran, the Conservation Fund aimed to purchase land just outside the park and then sell it to the Park Service. One of the properties sought by the Conservation Fund surrounded Corcoran’s farm. Its purchase and re-sale to the government would have put her property within the new park boundary, making it eligible for condemnation by the Park Service. The only way Corcoran could save her farm was to buy the land coveted by the Conservation Fund, an expense few landowners could bear.

Depopulating rural America

Last summer, the Wilderness Society joined forces with the Sierra Club and Colorado Wilderness Network to urge Congress to designate for “protection” 1.6 million acres of Bureau of Land Management and adjacent U.S. Forest Service lands. The proposal, they explained, “offers a balanced alternative to the threats to these special places from increased oil and gas development, mining, logging, and unregulated off-road vehicle use.”

The message is clear enough. “Protection” means excluding this and other giant tracts of land from those activities that have traditionally provided jobs to people in rural areas, particularly in the West. Once the economic base of rural communities has been destroyed, people will leave in search of greener pastures. The resulting depopulation of rural areas is exactly what the land-grabbing environmentalists want.

While the Bush administration has seen fit to kill a Clinton-era plan to reintroduce grizzly bears into parts of Idaho and Montana, much more needs to be done to protect hard-working people in rural areas from the unholy alliance of feds and greens.

Bonner R. Cohen is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia.