The Federal Land Grab Racket

Gridlock is a necessary evil in any government system with checks and balances.  It can nevertheless lead to despotism when government shutdowns are used to coerce representatives of vulnerable states into funding programs that grow the government.  This form of extortion is possible because a third of all U.S. land is federal property.

Territories that became states in the first half of the 19th century usually acquired nearly all lands that were previously under federal jurisdiction.  This changed after environmentalists persuaded Congress to retain lands for both their natural resources and scenic beauty.  This is why the largest expanses of federal land are in western states like Wyoming (48%), Oregon (53%), Alaska (61%), Idaho (62%), Utah (65%), and Nevada (85%).  East of the Mississippi, average federal land ownership is only 4%.  Nearly all these eastern states were consolidated prior to 1850.

The first national park was created by an act of Congress in 1872, and in 1906, Theodore Roosevelt asserted his new authority under the "American Antiquities Act" by designating 18 national monuments.  By the time President Carter signed the "Federal Land Policy and Management Act" in 1976, over a hundred more national monuments had been declared.  Rural Westerners who relied on federal lands to make a living chafed under the new FLPMA mandates and launched the "Sagebrush Rebellion."  Ronald Reagan was sympathetic to their cause.  As president, he appointed one of these "rebels" as secretary of the interior and implemented the "Good Neighbor Policy."  This lifted many of the restrictions imposed by Carter and gave locals more say in how the land would be used.

Article 1 of the Constitution relegates federal property to "Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, Dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings."  While a case can be made for setting aside small areas of public land of historic significance, the Framers would have regarded the actions of presidents like Roosevelt, Carter, and later Obama (who designated more national monuments than any other president) as federal overreach.

Obama's last-minute designation of over a million acres of land surrounding "Bears Ears" was particularly egregious because it was overwhelmingly rejected by Utah's legislature, and according to Article 1, the acquisition of federal property requires consent of the state government.  Nevertheless (without a hint of irony), mainstream environmentalists characterized Trump's reversal of Obama's designation as a "land grab."

This passage from the Center for American Progress sums up their disdain for western legislatures trying to assert control over all lands inside their borders:

Rather than being managed so that all Americans can enjoy them, turning our public lands over to states would result in their management on the whims of governors and state legislatures, who in the West are often quite conservative and tend to ideologically favor limited regulation and private profits.

Environmentalists who shudder at the notion of turning over national parks to states overlook the role of state and regional parks in preserving our natural heritage.  How many visitors to Anastasia or Bahia Honda believe that these Florida state parks would be better off under federal jurisdiction?  These habitats not only protect wildlife, they also attract visitors from out of state that patronize local businesses.  Any governor who proposes opening them to development would be run out of town on a rail.

There have been over a dozen government shutdowns since the Carter administration but most were barely noticed outside the Beltway because presidents worked hard to lessen their impact.  In stark contrast, Obama weaponized the 2013 shutdown to show all Americans how much they "needed" Washington.  Consequently, National Park Service employees were ordered to go out of their way to barricade national monuments and inflict "as much pain as possible" on Americans.  In Yellowstone National Park, an overzealous ranger even ordered a group of elderly tourists back into a tour bus to stop them from taking pictures.

If federal lands were transferred to states, Washington would cede economic leverage over states where many people stubbornly cling to the quaint notion of enumerated powers.  This is why those who try to scale back even a little bit of federal authority face so much resistance, as in the case of the secretary of the interior, Ryan Zinke: he was subjected to so many unproven allegations that he eventually resigned.  James Watt (Zinke's predecessor under Reagan) also served only two years.  He resigned after a mildly insensitive remark was blown way out of proportion by the media.  Even though these secretaries served over 30 years apart, both were demonized for opening portions of federal property to mining and development.  In both instances, the media presented it as a clash between preservationists and corporations.  While there is no denying the role of environmentalists and business interests, it is in essence a power struggle between career civil servants and rural westerners.  Empowering western residents over all lands inside their borders not only diminishes the authority of federal bureaucrats, but also threatens their raison d'être because people who believe in limited government are more inclined to ask why some of these agencies are even necessary.

The 2013 shutdown shows us the “noble” intentions in 1872 and 1906 now serve as a means to extort concessions from states whose residents who are not on the same page as their D.C. overlords. Ronald Reagan was unhappy with the resignation of James Watt. He may have been thinking about the ruling class that drummed out his Secretary of the Interior when he said, “Tyranny, like fog in a well-known poem, often creeps in silently on little cat feet”.

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