U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
The Honorable Frank H. Murkowski, Chairman
Testimony of Robert J. Smith
Senior Environmental Scholar Competitive Enterprise Institute
On S.25, the Conservation and Reinvestment Act of 1999
S.446, the Resources 2000 Act
S.532, the Public Land and Recreation Investment Act of 1999
and the Administration's Lands Legacy initiative
April 20, 1999
Chairman Murkowski, thank you for inviting the Competitive Enterprise Institute to testify today on these important issues. My name is Robert J. Smith, and I am the senior environmental scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and our Center for Private Conservation . The Competitive Enterprise Institute, "CEI" is a free market, limited government, private property public interest group.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute opposes enactment of the Conservation and Reinvestment Act of 1999 and other similar bills and proposals such as the Clinton-Gore Administration's Lands Legacy Initiative. While my remarks today are directed at S.25, most of them apply just as well to S.446, S.532 and the Lands Legacy Initiative.
Our primary concern with S.25 is with Title II, which will create a permanent dedicated, off-budget, unappropriated trust fund for the acquisition of private property and private lands by federal, state, county and local governments. This trust fund will provide a minimum of $900 million per year in perpetuity for the acquisition of private lands by government. Because the funds provided to the states for land acquisition must have matching funds, the bill will ultimately provide well over one billion dollars per year to transfer still more lands from private ownership to government ownership.
Mr. Chairman, we view this as nothing more than a wholesale attack on the very institution of private property, which is the underpinning of our unique free and prosperous society. All of our freedom is built upon the right of private property, and without private property rights no other rights or freedoms are possible, they are merely illusory. Our Founding Fathers based our nation and our freedom on the rights of life, liberty and property. Men as different in their thinking as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton all agreed on the need for wide devolution of the federal lands to ensure a nation of free and productive men and women.
Yet we now have a nation where approximately 42 percent of all the land is owned by government at one level or another, including federal lands, state lands, county lands, local and community lands, and the native trust lands. The totals for governmental land ownership are so large and complex that it is even difficult to obtain exact figures on the total amounts of land ownership by each level of government and the various agencies within those governments. One would think there would be some serious effort at inventorying what government already owns before setting out on a massive permanent program of endless additional governmental acquisitions of private lands.
It is important to stop and consider the significance of the fact that government at all levels in America already owns some 42 percent of the nation's land. This is a staggeringly high percentage of government ownership of land and resources in a free society, supposedly based upon the beliefs of the Founding Fathers that the cornerstone of all our freedom depends upon the widest possible distribution of private ownership of property. In a most interesting observation, the liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote: "The public lands of the United States exceed the combined areas of Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Denmark and Albania. When socialized ownership of land is, concerned, only the USSR and China can claim company with the United States."
Galbraith made those observations prior to the collapse of communism, the breakup of the Soviet Union and the termination of the collective farms across China. Thus it would appear that, and is probably likely that, the United States of America already has the most socialistic land ownership system in the world. One would hope that this would give the Republican-controlled Congress some second thoughts before they become engaged in an aggressive program to extend the tentacles of government land ownership still further and to destroy still more of the underlying private property that ensures the freedom of our people.
The efforts of the Republican leadership in the House and the Senate is especially disturbing because the Republican Party has traditionally been the party to defend private property rights and private ownership of land. Indeed a mere ten years ago when the Democrats were attempting to create a similar massive land trust fund for the acquisition of private lands by the government, the American Heritage Trust Act, it was the Republicans who said no, and stepped in to defend private property rights.
Indeed, one of the major reasons for the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 was his pledge to defend private property rights and to stop government taking of private lands. His administration vastly slowed the rate of government acquisition. They pointed out that the federal government was unable to take care of what it already owned. At least four major General Accounting Office reports released from 1979 to 1981 documented the sorry state of the nation's government-owned lands and criticized land acquisition by the Park Service, the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
Why would anyone give still more land to the government to mismanage? Any number of books, articles and reports have documented the sorry state of even the nation's National Parks. Indeed, even Yellowstone National Park, the crown jewel of the park system, and the world's first national park, is in deplorable condition. If the government can't and won't take care of their crown jewel, why should let them have even one additional square inch of the American land?
Mr. Chairman, where is the pressing need for additional government land acquisition? Supporters of this land acquisition trust fund have been saying why don't the nation's private property advocates come up with ways to make these bills better. O.K. The way to make these bills better, is not to take any private property. Enough is enough. What is the goal of this legislation? How much land do you intend ultimately for the government to own. One billion dollars a year forever, is going to take vast amounts of privately owned land and transfers in to government ownership. Is the ultimate goal 50 percent; 60 percent; or 70 percent?
If the Republican Party- and the U.S. Congress care about the nation's land and the environment and wildlife and habitat, why create a vast trust fund to acquire still more private land and transfer it to governments which demonstrably cannot care for what they already own. Why not instead, if we truly care, use that billion dollar a year trust fund for better management, protection and maintenance of the lands the government already owns. That would seem to be a rational first and highest priority.
We are told repeatedly that these bills pose no threat to private property, because private lands will only be acquired from "willing sellers" and within the boundaries of existing governmental land ownership and management units. This sounds like the traditional and much-feared statement, "We're from the government and we're here to help you." The American people know better.
The government and the environmental community have become experts at turning private landowners into "willing sellers," forcing them to become "willing sellers," by using a vast array of environmental laws and regulations, including especially the Endangered Species Act, to so regulate private lands that private landowners cannot use their lands, -cannot earn a living from their lands, and can find no one who will purchase their lands and banks that will find any collateral value in the lands because they are so encumbered by environmental regulations-that all they can do with their lands is to sell them to the government. The members of this committee have heard of example after example of such horror stories across the American landscape. This is not what "willing" means.
Furthermore, to suggest that there is no threat to private landownership or private property rights because acquisition will only come form those people whose land and homes happens to lie within the borders of some governmental land unit is also misleading. Most of these inholders never chose to become inholders and never asked the government to draw boundaries around their homes, farms, ranches, and lands. The only thing that is permitting them to still live in their homes is the fortunate fact that governments have not had the money to buy them out, force them off their lands and bum down or bulldoze their homes. I just returned from a national property rights congress in Albany, New York where thousands of inholders throughout the Adirondacks State Park are living in fear of the day when the Republican Party switches from being the party of private property rights to the party that destroyed private property rights.
Mr. Chairman, many people are telling us that this legislation is necessary to protect hunting and fishing in America. It is difficult to see how anyone can make this argument with a straight face. Most of the lands that have been acquired by the Land and Water Conservation Fund and that will be acquired by this vast billion-dollar-a-year land acquisition fund will go into park lands, recreation lands and refuge lands where hunting in particular is either very difficult or all but impossible. Many, if not most, of these land categories preclude hunting. Furthermore, as long as land is held in private ownership, there is always the opportunity for hunters to knock on a private landowner's door and to purchase the right to access the lands for hunting. Does anyone seriously think that it would be possible to knock on the door of the Secretary of Interior and purchase the right to hunt on government lands?
An additional concern, which should be taken very seriously, is that of the perverse incentives that this legislation and the threat of government land acquisition will have on the behavior of the nation's private Landowners with respect to their traditional private stewardship and private conservation activities. Our Center for Private Conservation documents the history of America's unique tradition of private stewardship of public environmental amenities at private expense. Yet we have unfortunately seen a growing trend of private landowners increasingly becoming fearful of being good stewards, because the better stewards they are, the more wildlife habitat and wildlife they have on their lands. They live in fear that leaving windbreaks, hedgerows, riparian habitat, and older trees on their private lands will attract some endangered or threatened species, whose presence will prevent the landowners from any productive use of their lands. When private landowners are penalized for being good stewards and good conservationists, they stop those exemplary activities. We have all heard of the unfortunate "shoot, shovel and shut up" syndrome fostered by the disincentives in the Endangered Species Act, and we are all aware of the land and habitat sterilization that results in those areas of the country with major conflicts involving the Endangered Species Act.
Creation of a massive, aggressive and virulent permanent land acquisition fund is certain to achieve the same perverse results. What landowner is going to have an incentive to make his or her lands so attractive to governmental land managers and environmentalists that they will entice the government to step in and find whatever means are necessary to make that landowner into a "willing seller?" The only way for private landowners to be secure in their property rights under such legislation and land acquisition programs, will be to make certain that there is nothing on their lands that the government would ever want. That, I am afraid will be the unintended consequence of this legislation.
Mr. Chairman, Title 11 of this legislation is not only a massive threat to the basic rights of our free people and to private property rights, but it also is a massive threat to the protection of wildlife and wildlife habitat and a sound environment. We should all be working together to maintain a free and prosperous nation and a sound and healthy environment - not working to destroy the private property rights which ensure our freedom and the private stewardship and conservation which is protecting so much of the American land. Instead, why not protect private property rights and private land ownership and work with America's private landowners instead of against them?
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