Grassroots opposition stalls CARA again

Published December 1, 2001

Grassroots opposition has stymied what had seemed to be an unstoppable House of Representatives’ attempt to resurrect last year’s Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA).

Referred to by property rights advocates as the “Land Grab Act,” CARA was defeated in the House last year but reemerged this session with fully 220 sponsors. Nevertheless, grassroots opposition has once again placed the future of CARA in doubt.

Against the backdrop of a rapidly shrinking government surplus, CARA would require an expenditure of $45 billion over 15 years for government purchases of private lands to be taken over and administered “for the public benefit.” CARA opponents warn “for the public benefit” generally means limited public access and land use restrictions championed by environmental activists.

Most House Democrats strongly support CARA, and many Republicans have also backed the bill, noting it provides compensation to landowners for the property sought by government. Support is weakening, however. Opposition among Republicans and even some Democrats has coalesced around a suspicion that CARA simply empowers the government to wage a “tax and spend” assault on private property for the benefit of environmental extremists.

How much is enough?

Robert Smith, a property rights expert at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, notes the federal government already owns more than 42 percent of the nation’s land. “Where is the pressing need for additional land acquisition?” he asked during congressional hearings. “How much land do you intend ultimately for the government to own? How much is enough?”

Smith’s concerns are bolstered by recent studies showing the government is failing to properly manage the land it already owns. (See “Park Service buys more land, maintains less,” Environment & Climate News, January 2001.) Earlier this year, a study by the Department of the Interior’s inspector general reported $13 billion in backlogged maintenance costs on federal land. The report noted crumbling buildings on Ellis Island, out-of-control forest fires in numerous national parks, and dangerous buildings in Montana federal parklands.

In addition to the Department of Interior study, a General Accounting Office report concluded the federal government has not been able “to effectively carry out its maintenance responsibilities.”

The federal government, according to Representative Butch Otter (R-Idaho), is “just not managing the land” it already owns. “Now we want them to buy more of it so it will all be in greater disrepair?”

A “disaster” for landowners

With grassroots opposition to CARA building, especially across rural America, Republican leaders are wary of dealing a heavy blow to the people most responsible for electing President George W. Bush to office. Claiming to protect private property by assigning federal tax dollars for its purchase amounts to little more than “a head fake,” asserted Senator Don Nickles (R-Oklahoma).

Republican opposition in the House has rallied around a letter read into the Congressional Record on July 25 by Representative Richard Pombo (R-California). The letter was written by Ronald Reagan’s longtime friend G. Ray Arnett, who served Governor Reagan as his director of the California Department of Fish and Game, and then served President Reagan as assistant interior secretary for fish, wildlife, and parks.

CARA would be “a disaster for property owners,” warns Arnett. “Every owner of a ranch, farm, woodlot, or game preserve will be at risk of being targeted by government agencies working in tandem with environmental, anti-hunting, and animal rights pressure groups.”

Under the direction of environmental extremists, Arnett writes, federal and state agencies will target “lands historically and currently used for sport hunting, fishing, and trapping. This will subject the property’s sporting use to the whim of bureaucracies that are increasingly hostile to sport hunting, fishing, trapping, and firearms ownership.”

Moreover, states Arnett, CARA “will interfere with the Bush-Cheney administration’s plans to reduce the multibillion-dollar maintenance backlog in the National Park Service and other federal agencies.”

Once believed to be a legislative inevitability this year, the momentum shift against CARA in the House is encouraging to private property supporters and rural Americans. Last year, CARA passed the House by a 315-102 vote before succumbing to Senate bickering over funding oversight.