It’s time to protect our property . . . again

Published August 1, 2001

I am not a lawyer. I have spent 35 years watching the federal government buy, mismanage, and seal up more and more private property. Many citizens are deeply concerned about these matters.

While attending a conference recently, a lady from southern Virginia asked me to look at two new U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service brochures that discuss the purchase of private property for the refuge system and for state fish and wildlife agencies utilizing Pittman Robertson funds. She explained that many people were upset by the arrogance and intimidating tone of these brochures.

What struck me most in reading them was the constant and steady mention of the condemnation authority of the government (the Fish & Wildlife Service in this case). Like the bartender’s shotgun on the bar as he tells a patron to leave, the mere mention (much less the repeated reminder) of the government’s condemnation authority deeply affects the “negotiations to purchase” the home or livelihood of tax-paying American citizens.

An unlimited right to condemn?

The right of the government to take private property (with just compensation) is rightly and deeply imbedded in the Constitution and laws of the United States. Who could argue with the government’s right to condemn certain bluffs along the lower Potomac River to build forts to prevent the British Navy from coming back up the river to burn Washington? Certainly the government needs to condemn private property to build an interstate highway system or to place an anti-missile defense site where it is needed.

That said, should the authority to condemn be automatically applied to a pretty patch of farmland in central Ohio or a hay meadow in sight of a National Park drive, merely because a government agency believes it would be nice for the government to own that property?

The way it works today, the FWS (or NPS or USFS or BLM) writes up paperwork to justify to Congress why the pretty farms in Ohio, or the fields near a Refuge or Park or Forest, would be nice for the government to own. It gets all dressed up in the politically correct words of the day (biodiversity, viewshed, native species, access control, etc.).

Four to eight new Refuges are designated every year, plus even more parks, plus additions to currently authorized sites. Many of these originate with the anti-private property nongovernment organizations (NGOs), or with certain politicians, or as political cover for other things.

For instance, the recent CARA land purchase behemoth was supported by a couple of key states because they receive disproportionate shares of the acquisition money. NGOs like the National Rifle Association supported CARA after gaining assurance that some of the grant money will be available to them. State fish and wildlife agencies strongly supported it as an enormous new source of revenue to them–although their governors and legislatures will have little or no say about the disposition of those funds. State agencies will become little more than vassals of the federal regulation-writers.

When Congress approves (authorizes) the new Congressman Jim Beers Refuge in Ohio, or the addition of Jim Beers’ home and hay field to the Bull Run National Park, the agency (in this case FWS or NPS) automatically gets condemnation authority. Never mind that they brag about how they seldom use it. Imagine as I shake you down for protection money, I introduce Vito, my 300 pound enforcer. If I tell you he has only rarely had to break an arm or a leg, does his presence not affect the outcome of our discussion?

With increasing frequency and magnitude, the federal government is acquiring private land for purposes that are neither emergencies nor urgent, reduce acreages that produce food and fiber, and limit public access for recreational and social uses. Increasingly, the land acquisitions are based on questionable and frivolous rationales.

A call to arms

Putting an end to this abuse of government authority will require a national effort by all who are concerned about the steady loss of freedom. Our goal should be a simple amendment to all laws that give the government condemnation authority. I think that means we need a lawyer.

Whenever Congress authorizes the acquisition of private property for purposes other than national defense (or interstate highways?), the bill must specifically authorize the use of condemnation power. Absent that specific authorization, the power to condemn would not exist, and only willing sellers would enter into negotiations.

If a government agency wants to fence off your family farm to install a cheap imitation of Middle Ages America, that agency should pay you at least the price willing sellers have gotten in your neighborhood.

If I was a mall developer and wanted the farm your great-grandfather started, does anyone believe I would ever get it for anywhere near the price your recently retired neighbor got for his farm? If land developers offered only the price that acreage had sold for over the past 10 years, would they ever get enough land? Of course not.

But when the government lays the condemnation hammer on the table, people who do not want to sell at any price are forced to capitulate. Is that we fought wars for? Is this the sort of citizen-government relationship our Founding Fathers framed in the Constitution and Bill of Rights? Of course not.

Congress should openly and forthrightly grant condemnation authority only to those land purchases that serve an important and overriding national interest. The other, nice-to-do purchases should involve only willing sellers in the true sense of the word.

If an American citizen desires to own property, the government should not be able to take it away for frivolous purposes. We fought and won a war against King George for this right, and we ought not tolerate losing it piecemeal for the politically correct expediencies of passing fads and individual political careers.

Talk about this and get your organizations to band together. Everyone from the farmer to the pet owner, medical researcher, hunter, trapper, logger, horse owner, gun owner, and a whole lot more share in this struggle to maintain our rights in an increasingly restrictive national environment.

Jim Beers is federal programs coordinator for the National Trappers Association.

For more information . . .

on the National Trappers Association, visit its Web site at