By Holly Fretwell and
The Tea Party's rhetoric sounds good--cut spending and relegate government to its limited constitutional confines--but will it translate into meaningful action once the Tea Partiers join the ranks of the Washington establishment? It's too soon to tell, but there's one area where immediate steps can be taken to make good on platitudes about debt slashing and big government bashing: scaling back our bloated federal estate.
In what is hardly a symbol of constrained federal power, fully 25% of the U.S. is managed by the federal government. Despite an expansive national debt, legislation pending in Congress proposes to spend nearly a billion dollars each year acquiring even more land. But if the results of the mid-term election are any indication, now is the wrong time for such an expansion.
The government's primary land acquisition program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, is set to expire in 2015. This week Congress will consider permanently funding the LWCF at $900 million per year, adding countless more acres to the federal estate. A recently leaked memo from the Bureau of Land Management foreshadows this expansion. It identifies millions of acres throughout the West that the government intends to acquire with funds from the LWCF.
But given the condition of our existing federal lands, even conservationists should be asking, why add more?
Federal land management has largely resulted in poor stewardship of America's most treasured natural areas. Maintenance, in particular, has been dismal. The Forest Service estimates a backlog of $5 billion in deferred maintenance projects and the National Park Service has a backlog of more than $10 billion. The outcome is overflowing sewer systems, failing roads and ruined cultural resources.
But that hasn't stopped these agencies from acquiring even more land. Since 1960 the government has taken over more than 50 million acres--an area the size of Utah.
To an increasingly conservation-minded public, putting more land in government ownership might seem sensible. But, in reality, more federal land does not necessarily mean more conservation. The LWCF only provides funds for land acquisition, not for the care and maintenance of same. And given the current management needs of the 650 million acres already owned by the government, spending millions acquiring new land is irresponsible.
The reason for this mismanagement is simple: Federal land management is political land management. Decisions are made in Washington, D.C., rather than locally, where land managers are best equipped with the knowledge of where funding should be allocated. Politicians and bureaucrats want to provide visible benefits, such as new parks and buildings, to gain constituent support while the day-to-day needs are shoved to the sideline until a crisis occurs.
Consider the $1 million outhouse built in Glacier National Park. Despite requests by local park managers for funds to repair the failing foundation of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, Congress earmarked millions for elaborate back-country chalets, complete with a pricey composting toilet.
Years later, road closures and safety concerns prompted emergency funds to be allocated to repair the deteriorating road, costing taxpayers far more to rebuild than to simply maintain.
Or consider the millions of acres of wildfire-prone forests that span the West. Decades of fire suppression and restrictions on logging have created unnaturally dense forests prone to catastrophic wildfires.
Instead of acquiring more land, Congress should protect the land it already owns. This is best achieved by decentralizing management of the federal estate. Local land managers are beholden to the land's users and beneficiaries, not D.C.-based politicians or bureaucrats. The result is better stewardship, enhanced accountability, and controlled costs.
Giving states more control is one way to do this. Since state lands are often managed for the benefit of schools and other beneficiaries, land managers must invest in the long-term health of the land. And they do so at a fraction of the cost. While the federal government loses money with every dollar it spends on land management, state trust lands earn an average of $9 for every dollar they spend.
Extending the LWCF will only increase the national debt and give the feds more power--all in the guise of conservation. If the Tea Party wants to make good its rhetoric, they'd do well to end this expansion of the federal estate.
Holly Fretwell is an instructor of economics at Montana State University and a research fellow at the Property & Environment Research Center. Her book, Who is Minding the Federal Estate, is an examination of public land policy. Shawn Regan is a former ranger for the National Park Service and a public affairs fellow at PERC.