Obesity a Thin Excuse for Supersizing Federal Land Grabs

Published June 1, 2004

During the 2000 Congressional session, and again during the 2001 session, a group of big-government federal lawmakers attempted one of the largest and most expensive land grabs in history. Designated the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA), the measure would have required the federal government to spend more than $3 billion each and every year to buy private land and remove it, in the name of “conservation,” from the control of private citizens.

After the House approved CARA in 2000, the bill stalled in the Senate. The legislation was redrafted in 2001 but generated less enthusiasm than it had the year before. CARA was, it seemed, as dead as the Soviet collective farm system.

Enough Is Enough

Why did CARA die? Opposition to the bill grew as the taxpaying public learned the federal government already owns 40 percent of the land in this country. Environmental activist groups will always claim some astounding environmental significance for whatever piece of land they happen to want the government to purchase and remove from private citizens. But when the government has already cherry-picked the most desirable 40 percent of the country, just how astoundingly important can the remaining 60 percent be?

The public also learned that the federal government by its own admission has mismanaged the national parks, forests, and wilderness areas it already owns. In times of record federal budget deficits and more pressing social concerns, the American people were reluctant to spend an additional $3 billion each year to purchase, and then turn over to the fumbling federal bureaucracy, still more acreage.

People got fed up with the notion that taxpayers ought to buy land for environmental activist groups. Why won’t those groups buy the land themselves? The Sierra Club alone, for example, has more than $80 million in assets, in addition to the tens of millions of dollars it raises and spends every year. Multiply this by the multitude of similar activist groups, such as the Nature Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife, etc., and it becomes clear environmental groups should buy and preserve themselves whatever land they deem most valuable.

Now Here’s a Stretch

But give credit to the champions of big-government: They will never miss an opportunity to grab a larger piece of America for control by government.

Taking advantage of studies showing 20 percent of Americans are “obese” (typically defined as a rather modest 20 percent above a ridiculously slender “ideal” body weight), the federal land-grabbers twisted the findings to suit their own ends and swung into action. Old CARA activists have re-created it, virtually word for word, and now call it the Get Outdoors (GO) Act.

Unbelievable, isn’t it? But it’s true. “Obesity is a public health crisis of the first order, and the Get Outdoors Act is a sensible way to help mitigate that public health crisis,” said Congressman George Miller (D-California), House co-sponsor of the bill.

The GO Act will flood with money such programs as the Historic Preservation Fund and endangered species recovery. Is a walking tour through an eighteenth century plantation really an effective weight-loss activity? Does taking thousands of acres infested by kangaroo rats and ruling it off limits to humans make humans more likely to lose weight?

The simple fact is, the GO Act is about as likely to benefit human weight loss as Mojave Desert land preservation is likely to benefit polar bears.

Obesity “Epidemic”

Only 20 percent of Americans are considered obese, and that’s by the stringent standards set by the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The majority of obese Americans, according to the CDC, are over the age of 50.

Americans, and especially elderly Americans, tend to be obese because we can afford to be. We have accumulated the wealth and disposable income to treat ourselves to healthy portions of the food we like. Most of the world’s people do not have that luxury.

We deliberately choose, especially as we get older, to spend a great deal of our time enjoying activities that may not involve physical exertion. We go on cruises with all-you-can-eat midnight buffets; we watch rather than participate in sporting events, sit in theaters, and stroll through art galleries and shopping malls. We sit at our computers for hours at a time chatting online with friends and family. We camp out on the couch and tune in our satellite dish to watch virtually any movie or live sporting event the planet has to offer.

It’s not that Americans are overweight because we are imprisoned in our homes with no place to exercise. Any one of us can stroll around the block, jog through the neighborhood, or bike all we want on local roadways, parks, and trails. We are overweight because we willingly and happily make lifestyle choices that bring us little exercise but great pleasure.

Does anybody actually believe Americans are overweight because the government owns only 40 percent, rather than 50 or 60 percent, of the entire U.S. landmass? If people don’t use the available 40 percent for weight loss, exercise, and recreation, by what logic will we suddenly begin to use the additional and less appealing 10 or 20 percent the environmentalists also want the federal government to buy?

Wouldn’t it be cheaper–and more effective–to buy every American his or her choice of a treadmill, weight bench, basketball, Jane Fonda workout tape, or pair of jogging shoes, instead?

Follow the Money

If we are looking for a motive for the GO Act, above and beyond the usual big-government motivation of so many radical environmentalists, we need only consider the main beneficiaries of the bill. Not surprisingly, federal money will be pumped disproportionately to the states of the two House co-sponsors: Don Young (R-Alaska) and the aforementioned George Miller (D-California).

If the true purpose of the GO Act is to fight obesity, why are funds being spent disproportionately in Alaska, where the government already owns most of the land, where hardly anybody lives, and where it’s often too cold to exercise outside, and in California, where the government already owns most of the land and where obesity is far less of a problem than in other regions of the country?

Ask your friends, colleagues, and family members how much American land the government should own. I guarantee most will give you a figure much less than 40 percent. Ask yourself, how much land is enough?

And then, ask your elected officials that same question, and demand a concrete answer.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].