Conserving America's land resources has been a federal concern ever since President Theodore Roosevelt made it a national priority more than 100 years ago. Today, however, federal land management policy has strayed far from Roosevelt's vision of conserving natural resources by making Americans better stewards of the environment. Instead, Washington has implemented a command-and-control approach that wastes valuable financial resources and at times is environmentally harmful.
According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, the federal government now owns one-third of the land in the United States. Four federal agencies--the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and National Park Service, with combined annual budgets of $8.1 billion in fiscal year 1999--manage most of this land. Recent reports by the federal government's own watchdogs, however, point out that these agencies are not doing a good job. The GAO has reported that they now have a backlog of maintenance problems on public lands that exceeds $12 billion. In April, the Congressional Budget Office recommended that, because the federal land management agencies find it difficult to maintain operations on their existing land holdings, Congress should place a ten-year moratorium on future appropriations for land acquisitions by these agencies.
As far back as 1818, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Bevans that a state's right to control property within its borders was an essential part of its sovereignty, yet President Bill Clinton and Congress have proposed legislation that will override both state sovereignty and private property rights. The Clinton Administration's Land Legacy Initiative would establish a $1.3 billion trust fund for new federal and state land acquisitions--$450 million for federal land acquisition and $580 million for state and local government land acquisitions. This is an increase of 125 percent over the federal funds available in the 1999 budget. The Conservation and Reinvestment Act of 1999 (H.R. 701) would direct about $900 million to the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF)--$378 million for federal land acquisition, $378 million for state land acquisition, and $144 million for local governments' Urban Parks and Recreation Recovery programs. A companion bill (S. 25) has been introduced in the Senate. Unlike the Land Legacy Initiative, the congressional legislation would transform the LWCF into a "dedicated fund" that, by design, would allow federal agencies to bypass the scrutiny of the annual appropriations process and congressional oversight.
The question Members of Congress and Americans generally should ask is whether the acquisition of more private land by federal, state, and local governments will accomplish the objective put forth by Theodore Roosevelt: to leave this magnificent country a better land for future generations. Because federal land managers have a poor record of caring for the nation's precious natural land resources, the answer to this question is not to reward them with more money and power. Rather, Congress's efforts should be directed toward:
Defining when it is in the national interest for the federal government to take away private ownership of land;
Initiating a thorough investigation of the federal government's current land holdings and land management activities;
Determining what the role of federal land managers should be in caring for publicly held land;
Holding federal land management agencies accountable for achieving positive environmental outcomes; and
Facilitating the privatization of lands that should not be under federal control.
As the Framers of the Constitution well understood, people care most about the environment in which they live, and the level of government closest to the people will be the most effective at implementing policies that promote conservation of land while respecting property rights. To that end, Congress should ensure that the federal government manages and funds only public land that possesses unique historic, recreational, or biological qualities. Lands such as Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon, for example, are appropriate assets of the American people and belong under federal control. Privatizing land that should not be under federal or state control would ease the financial burden that inappropriate federal holdings inflict on taxpayers and the U.S. Treasury. It also would encourage local and private interest and investment in conserving America's land resources.
Congress should consider devolving to the states the ownership of public lands that do not meet the criteria for federal ownership and are not suitable for privatization. State and local governments generally have a better track record in managing public land efficiently and with greater responsiveness to local needs and interests. If their money had to pass first through Washington's land management bureaucracies, however, it is not certain that this would continue. Congress must establish a new federal land management strategy that clearly defines when it is in the national interest for the federal government to own land, holds federal agencies accountable for their efforts, and allows federal land managers to focus on protecting the nation's greatest land treasures and ensuring the long-term conservation of America's natural resources for future generations.
Alexander F. Annett is a former Environmental Policy Analyst in The Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.