By Holly Lippke Fretwell
As Congress prepares to add more land to the federal estate for conservation purposes, the condition of lands already under federal control continues to decline. Current federal land stewardship is doing more harm than good. "If we are to protect America’s most valued lands, federal land management policies must be reformed and private conservation efforts encouraged," says PERC researcher Holly Lippke Fretwell.
In her new report, "Federal Estate: Is Bigger Better?", Fretwell points out that one-third of the land area of the United States is under federal control. Acreage continues to be added at a rate of more than 800,000 acres per year and will rapidly increase if the proposed legislation specifically for land acquisitions is passed. While federal land ownership expands, funds for managing these new lands are not forthcoming. President Clinton’s Land Legacy Initiative, which will provide $1 billion a year for land acquisitions, has no funds for addressing critical resource management problems.
Any land manager whether working for a federal agency or overseeing a private farm or ranch, knows that protecting resources requires management and that comes at a price. Merely placing land into federal ownership without addressing its management needs in no way ensures conservation and can actually lead to greater degradation.
To protect valuable federal lands, managers must face economic realities rather than kowtowing to Congress for their budgets. Recreational lands should pay their own way. Commodity lands without other assets such as wildlife habitat or scenic value should be sold. The proceeds could be used to manage lands with higher conservation value. And private efforts should be encouraged by expanding the flexibility of conservation easements and easing the estate tax burden.