Congress approves billions to buy land

Published July 1, 2000

As thousands of acres of federally owned land in New Mexico burned out of control, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) and 314 of his colleagues in Congress passed legislation aimed at putting even more private land in the hands of the federal government.

Hundreds of homes have burned, necessitating the emergency evacuation in mid-May of thousands of Los Alamos-area residents. As we go to press, just 35 percent of the blaze was deemed under control. The wildfire began as a “controlled burn” purposely set by the U.S. Park Service in New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument.

The fires continued to rage through dangerously overfueled forests across New Mexico, and plumes of smoke spread across Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, as Congressmen left Washington on May 11 after passing Young’s Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA).

What CARA does

The measure, approved by Young and 118 other Republicans as well as 196 Democrats, mandates the spending of $42 billion over the next 15 years. Money to fund the massive land-buying trust will come from Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) oil drilling fees—money that previously went to reducing the size of the federal budget deficit.

As Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage (R-Idaho) explained, “CARA [establishes] a new federal entitlement program, one dedicated to the acquisition of more property for the government.” Entitlement appears to be an appropriate term: As is true of other federal entitlement programs, the bill mandates that $2.8 billion be spent every year for the next 15 years. The spending is not discretionary; future Congresses may not decide to reduce or in any way vary the spending.

Over the next 15 years, CARA requires expidures of:

  • $15 billion in impact assistance and coastal conservation. These funds are principally dedicated to buying land in “coastal states,” which the bill assumes to be most negatively affected by offshore drilling. For CARA purposes, the Great Lakes were deemed oceans, thereby adding Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin to the roll of coastal states. The bill does not identify specific harms to coastal states it aims to address.
  • $15.5 billion in Land and Water Conservation Fund revitalization. The bulk of these funds are also intended to allow state and federal government agencies to acquire privately owned land.
  • $5.25 billion to the Wildlife Conservation and Restoration Fund. Under the direction of the Fish and Wildlife Service, this fund offers a pool of money out of which state and local government agencies can finance conservation efforts. Taxes paid by hunters and other outdoor recreationists are targeted to this fund. FWS Director Jamie Clark was recently found by a Congressional investigation to be defrauding the fund of millions of dollars to finance personal projects, including unidentified projects in the Peoples Republic of China.
  • $1.9 billion to fund urban parks and recreation recovery. CARA provides funding in this category for such diverse activities as building professional sports stadiums and infrastructure.
  • $1.5 billion for the Historic Preservation Fund. Rep. Mark Souder (R-Indiana) has introduced a bill that would spend money from this fund on such projects as Chicago’s Fort Dearborn and Mackinaw City, Michigan’s For Michilimackinac. The former fort doesn’t exist, having been replaced by some of the most expensive real estate in the country at the corner of Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago, and the latter is of dubious historic significance, having been built in 1958 as a tourist attraction.
  • CARA also provides $3 billion to restore federal and Indian lands; $2.25 billion for the purchase of conservation easements; and $3 billion for payment in lieu of taxes (PILT).

This last expenditure may in part replace the tax money communities will lose when private land is purchased by the government and taken off the property tax rolls. The Clinton-Gore administration’s cutback in logging in National Forests–estimated by some to be as high as 90 percent–has resulted in a corresponding reduction in PILT money for forest communities, devastating their schools.

How federal land is mismanaged

The federal government’s logging policy, championed by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, offers what professional foresters say may be the most costly and life-threatening example of why government should own less land, not more.

Many Forest Service foresters and logging industry representatives believe the logging cutbacks, which foresters blame on Vice President Al Gore’s far-left environmental supporters, are responsible for the New Mexico fire. No logging is permitted in the Bandelier National Monument, where the blaze was started.

“The fire was started,” according to Park Service spokesperson Dave Schultz, “for the purpose of reducing fuel–a controlled burn. It’s a tool we use, the Forest Service and Park Service, to reduce the amount of dead and down material so that it doesn’t build and have a heavy fuel load that burns hotter, faster, and longer.”

According to foresters who asked not to be identified, saying they feared for their jobs, the massive increase in fuel caused by dramatically reduced logging caused the “controlled” burn to turn into a wildfire, burning so hot in some areas that it is sterilizing the soil many feet down. Vegetation is unlikely to return to those areas for years.

“What happened to common sense?” asked W. Henson Moore, president of the American Forest and Paper Association. “Why ignite a fuel-laden forest? Why not thin forests in need rather than burn them down? I find it hard to believe that the environment, the public, or the wildlife is better off this way.”

Certainly the residents of Los Alamos, Espanola, and White Rock, New Mexico, where 250 homes have been lost as of this writing, are not better off.

“But, this is what we can expect,” according to Moore. “Without science-based management of our forests, today’s fires are a sign of things to come. I just can’t believe the wholesale burning of our national forests is the only cure to the environmental alarmism that has so infected this country.” The Forest Service’s logging policy is not the only example of land mismanagement, say some observers. Jefferson Edgens, natural resources policy specialist in the University of Kentucky’s Department of Forestry, points to the Clinton-Gore administration’s new roadless policy as another example of mismanagement that adds to the risk.

“No roads, no controlled burns,” said Edgens. The key to a controlled burn is having the necessary firefighting forces on the scene, as well as the means to withdraw them if something gets out of hand, as happened in New Mexico. “That takes roads,” Edgens said.

Yet the administration has continued an aggressive anti-road program for National Forests, vowing to ban road-building in between 40 and 60 million acres. The administration also has designated several monument and wilderness areas, making them off-limits to road building as well. The Forest Service has admitted it is $3 billion behind in road maintenance and has begun the deconstruction of many forest roads.

While Congress had an opportunity to remedy this situation through CARA, all attempts to amend the Act to allocate some of its $42 million for road and park maintenance were soundly defeated.

In order to become law, CARA must still clear the Senate. Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) has scheduled a June 14 vote on S-25 (CARA) in his Energy & Natural Resources Committee.