The Great Land Rush

Published July 1, 1999

The early days of the 106th Congress have witnessed an unexpected reaction to the Clinton/Gore administration’s on-going efforts to place more private land under federal control: a virtual land rush by Congressional Republicans and Democrats alike to see who can be first, and use the most money, to buy up private land.

During President Clinton’s tenure, the administration has launched several programs to place more land under federal control, from the American Heritage Rivers Initiative to the Lands Legacy program. Most recently, Vice President Al Gore’s new Livable Communities program seeks to control local land use policies, population density, commuting methods, and a variety of other aspects of Americans’ daily lives.

While these programs have in the past met with the strong opposition of many Republicans and property rights advocates, it appears now that some Republicans have taken a dramatically different position.

CARA: New Funds for Land Acquisition

First out of the blocks was Representative Don Young (R-Alaska). His proposed Conservation and Reinvestment Act of 1999 (CARA), introduced as H.R. 701 with co-sponsorship from Michigan Democrat John Dingell, would use Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) oil revenues to buy private land and fund the construction of such recreational projects as ballparks and ice hockey rinks. CARA was introduced in the Senate by Alaska Republican Frank Murkowski and Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana). (See related story on page 7.)

Young and Murkowski are unexpected defectors from the property rights ranks. Notes Tom Fink, a former two-term mayor of Anchorage and former speaker of the Alaska House of Representatives, “I have not found anyone who understands why Rep. Young and Sen. Murkowski have introduced or are pushing this legislation. In the past, they generally have been in support of the devolution of power to state and local governments and opposed to centralizing more authority in the federal government. The two of them generally have been very supportive of the private property concept and opposed to the government-owned concept.”

Young and Murkowski’s introduction of the CARA legislation is even more surprising given that over 95 percent of the land in their home state is already owned by the state and federal governments. The federal government is Alaska’s largest landowner, with 67 percent of the state’s total acreage.

“Why in the world would anyone want more single-purpose land to be placed in federal, state, or local government hands?” asks Fink. “This is particularly true in Alaska, where the only substantial amount of private land is owned by Native regional corporations.”

While CARA and similar bills have broad bipartisan support, some senators and congressmen, particularly those from western states, have expressed their concern that too much land is already under government control.

“I don’t want the federal government owning any more land in Idaho,” said Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho). Fellow Idaho Republican, Congressman Helen Chenoweth, agreed. “When I came to Congress,” Chenoweth said, “it was with the intention that not one more acre of this country would fall under federal control.”

Following the Money

Support for CARA can be explained in large part by the bills’ plans for where OCS money would be spent. CARA would send half of the funds directly to the federal treasury–which is currently the case with OCS money–and 10 percent would go to federal agencies for land acquisition and management. The remaining 40 percent–or nearly $1.4 billion–would go directly to states, village corporations, and tribes for land acquisition and management. Alaska’s share would be about $131 million, based on 1997 OCS revenues.

“It is completely reasonable to require OCS drillers to be responsible for the ecological and environmental damage they may incur on society,” noted Eric Schlecht of the National Taxpayers Union in testimony on H.R. 701. “Clearly, taxpayers should not be forced to pay for oil companies’ mistakes. However, taxing oil companies in order to fund the acquisition of land that is not even remotely affected by their activities is an entirely different proposition–one that NTU cannot endorse.”

While all states would receive funding, coastal states would be funded at a higher rate. Some Midwestern legislators have suggested that the Great Lakes states qualify as “coastal.”

“It makes perfect sense to dedicate money from oil and gas drilling off our coastline to natural resource renewal, and to ensure that growing coastal communities–including the Great Lakes–have the tools to better sustain livability and sustainable growth,” said Michigan’s Dingell in his statement in support of CARA.

Private Property in Grave Danger

While the bills require that lands purchased under CARA be bought only from “willing sellers,” Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association (ALRA), takes little comfort in that provision.

“Often, the only reason a landowner wants to sell is that he has been harassed and driven half-crazy trying to deal with the Park Service, which generally fails to negotiate in good faith. After enough pressure and abusive tactics,” Cushman notes, “almost any landowner can become a willing seller.”

Federal and state environmental regulations can turn landowners into “willing” sellers by severely restricting owners’ rights to use their property. When a western Michigan landowner attempted to build a home on his Lake Michigan property, he was forced into years of legal battles over a variety environmental regulatory issues, the last involving the Pitcher Thistle, a plant on the “threatened species” list. Dozens of thistles grew on the property–just two where he wanted to build his home. When the landowner offered to transplant the two, regulators expressed concern for the plants’ safety and rejected his proposal. He finally won the right to build on his land but, had he not had the money and determination to continue years of legal battles, he might very well have become a “willing seller.”

Testifying against H.R. 701 before the Committee on Resources of the U.S. House of Representatives, former U.S. Senator Malcolm Wallop warned, “For its advocates, the purpose of land acquisition has little to do with preserving the environment. Rather, it has everything to do with acquiring and using power over people and their resources. Land acquisition is used, in conjunction with the whole panoply of environmental regulations, to stop economic activity and to destroy local communities, to deny recreational access and to block transportation and utility corridors. It is also used as a weapon to threaten and control private landowners.”

The accompanying maps show how much private land has its use restricted under key federal regulations. These do not include lands covered by state regulatory programs, such as Michigan’s Natural Rivers Act, or emerging federal programs, such as President Clinton’s American Heritage Rivers Initiative.

“S-25 will support the condemnation and destruction of landowners and small communities all across America,” notes ALRA’s Cushman. “More than 115,000 landowners have already lost their land to the Park Service alone since 1966 because of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which will be amended by S-25.”

Who Owns Federal Lands

Nine agencies procure and manage federal lands. Just one of these agencies, the U.S. Forest Service, manages forests covering a land area equivalent to California, Oregon, and Washington combined.

The Bureau of Land Management administers much of the land under the control of the Department of Interior, while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the department’s wildlife refuges and the National Park Service runs national Parks and Monuments. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration runs the National Marine Sanctuaries for the Department of Commerce. The U.S. Forest Service manages the Department of Agriculture’s National Forests and Grasslands.

Other federal government landowners include the Department of Defense, which manages its installations, and the Department of Energy. The Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers control a variety of lakes and reservoirs.

What They Do with Them

Increasingly, the federal government’s landowning agencies deny public access to public lands. While the Departments of Defense and Energy have long denied access to most of their facilities for obvious national security reasons, other agencies are beginning to follow suit.

Most notable is the U.S. Forest Service’s expanding effort to restrict access to the National Forests through an extensive plan to “deconstruct” roads in the forests. The most extreme example, reported in the May issue of Environment News, occurred in Idaho’s Targhee National Forest. There, the Forest Service has built what have been dubbed “tank traps”–earth berms up to 15 feet high, backed by pits up to 15 feet deep, preventing the public’s access to over 400 miles of forest roads.

Idaho’s Chenoweth, chairman of the House subcommittee on forests and forest health, has conducted several hearings on the matter. The Department of Agriculture and Forest Service have been unresponsive. Undersecretary of Agriculture Jim Lyons, Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck, and Regional Administrator Jerry Reese, who manages the Targhee Forest, have not returned Environment News calls on the subject for over a month.