Does the GOP still stand for freedom?

Published March 1, 2000

Are those who forget history doomed to repeat it? In the case of Texas Governor George W. Bush, the answer would appear to be yes.

In 1994, Bush won his upset election to the governorship over highly popular then-Governor Ann Richards by riding the wave of the private property rights movement’s zealous opposition to federal land-use control and government land acquisition.

In June of that year, a memo was leaked from Secretary Bruce Babbitt’s U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service outlining plans to declare hundreds of thousands of acres–private farmland, cattle and game ranches, and private homes–as critical habitat for the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler (a small songbird) across 33 counties in and near the Texas “Hill Country.”

Overnight, massive opposition arose, scores of property rights organizations sprang up, and existing Heritage Associations created to defend property rights multiplied their membership. Rallies were held night after night for months in all the small towns across the Edwards Plateau. Small schoolhouse auditoriums that might seat a couple hundred were packed with standing-room-only crowds of ranchers, farmers, parents, and teachers carrying banners, pitchforks, shotguns, and signs protesting big government and its use of the Endangered Species Act to destroy private property rights and prevent Texans from using their private lands, and for refusing to pay any compensation when they did.

The unrest culminated in a giant rally in Austin, where the state capitol was ringed by a miles-long procession of tractors, pickup trucks, flatbeds, and marchers. “Remember the Alamo” and references to the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution were prominent in banners and posters.

George W. Bush jumped on this wave of fervent discontent and opposition, became a champion of the property rights movement, challenged Babbitt and the ESA, and rode into the governor’s mansion championing the basic necessity of private property rights for the preservation of freedom. Bush lauded the outstanding private stewardship of lands, habitats, and wildlife across the vast state of Texas–the result of broad private ownership of land in the state and the near- absence of government land ownership in Texas. Bush noted that Texas is the nation’s preeminent private property state; the outstanding conservation of its resources, he said, is a testament to that private stewardship.

Secretary Babbitt was forced to withdraw his land-use control scheme, and George W. Bush was elected Governor.

Not only had Bush recognized the overwhelming importance of the property rights issue in his election, but political pundits and columnists across the country have remarked on it.

But political ambition knows few principles, and it appears that George W. Bush’s lust for the Presidency has caused him to abandon the first principles of life, liberty, and property and the importance of private property rights in undergirding individual liberty and protecting the environment.

On November 8, Bush announced his full support for a radical left and green plan to fund the Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund with a permanent, dedicated, off-budget, entitlement fund–of at least $1 billion a year . . . in perpetuity. The fund would permit government agencies at all levels, federal, state, county and local, and even environmental groups, to acquire private lands and transfer them to government ownership.

Thousands of property rights organizations and associations, state and county farm bureaus, state cattlemen’s associations, and millions of homeowners, farmers, tree farmers, cattlemen, hunters, families, and landowners have fought such proposed legislation for over a decade. They were, to put it mildly, shocked and dismayed to see Bush enthusiastically promote such an attack on private property ownership.

Bush’s position is even more disturbing because it appears to demonstrate such a desperate desire to gain support from any direction, that the Governor has lost sight of the fact that no matter what he promises, no matter what first principles he compromises, the environmentalists and the left will still support either Gore or Bradley.

Not only has Bush called for expanding government ownership of private land at a time when about 42 percent of all the nation’s land is already owned by the government–there is no crisis in government landownership whatsoever–but he even went so far as to say that if we leave land in private ownership, we’ll “leave the future generations a world of polluted air, toxic waste, and vanished wilderness and forests.”

Who is writing his speeches, EarthFirst!?

Perhaps Bush should go back and reread the statements and speeches he made in 1994. Perhaps he should drive across the magnificent wildlife habitat of Texas’ ranchlands and look at the stewardship carried out by private landowners (and wonder why the government wants so badly to get its hands on those lands.)

Perhaps he should go out to the Pacific Northwest and fly over a mosaic of brown, dead, and dying government-owned forestlands, and then visit the green and healthy private forestlands, to refresh the lessons of caring private stewardship and conservation that comes with private ownership.

And perhaps most importantly, Bush should go back and visit the Alamo and walk quietly and reflectively through that small, hallowed space where brave Americans gave their lives to live free and own their own lands. Remember the Alamo, Dubya!

Governor Bush might even take note of the auto licence plates in New Hampshire as he races from speech to speech and reflect on the meaning of “Live free or die.”