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Sell federal land

By Henry Lamb
web posted October 3, 2005

The only thing about which Democrats and Republicans can agree these days, is the astronomical cost of rebuilding the storm-ravaged Gulf coast. Estimates, on either side of the political aisle, reach into the hundreds of billions of dollars. How to pay these costs is a question fueling heated debate inside both parties.

Rep. Tom Tancredo has the best idea to date: sell excess federal land.

Why should the federal government own more than 700 million acres - more than 30 per cent of the total land area?

Even after exempting all the military bases, and the lands that contain "other needful buildings," and all the national parks, the federal government still owns nearly 600 million acres, for no legitimate reason.

American taxpayers are shelling out money every year so the federal government can make "payments in lieu of taxes" to the state and local governments that have limited political jurisdiction over these lands. American taxpayers are shelling out money every year so armies of federal employees can make an effort to "manage" these lands.

Why?

If Congress would take seriously Rep. Tancredo's idea, and release this land to the private sector, the revenue generated could rebuild the Gulf coast, and more, and it would relieve the federal budget of the annual maintenance expense, further relieving the tax burden on every American.

Environmental organizations such as the Nature Conservancy would be free to use their vast wealth to buy the land - on the same basis as any other buyer - and manage it any way they wish. If they chose to prohibit logging, and let their land burn, they would be free to do so.

On the other hand, logging companies who buy the lands should also be free to cut, replant, and manage their land as they wish. No free-market capitalist could oppose such a plan.

There is an automatic market for many of these lands. Ranchers now occupy many thousands of acres, paying rent to the government for the privilege. Environmentalists have complained for years, that the rent paid by ranchers does not cover the cost of government's oversight. Let the ranchers buy the land. Eliminate the oversight costs altogether, and let the ranchers sink or swim, on the basis of their own environmental stewardship. No free-market capitalist could oppose such a plan. Energy producers - and consumers - are hungry for more resources. Sell the resource-rich lands to the producers, and let the market meet the consumer demand. Let the energy industry buy and develop the coal fields, which will provide affordable electricity for another century - and more.

Surely, no free-market capitalist could oppose such a plan.

But opposition will come.

Socialists believe that the government should own - or at least, control the use of - all land everywhere. For the last half-century, environmental organizations have invested hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying government to acquire, and expand the control of all land everywhere. The people who embrace this philosophy will raise the loudest cry in opposition.

Rep. Tancredo's idea could well be the very stimulus the economy needs. Not only could the rebuilding of the Gulf coast be funded, but the energy crisis could be alleviated as well. The burst of free-market investment, construction, and jobs that would follow implementation of the Tancredo plan would give the U.S. economy a boost, that would ripple around the world.

It is increasingly clear that the environmentalists' philosophy of locking up the land under government management will ultimately destroy a free market. In fact, there are good arguments that the environmental lawsuits that stopped improvements to the levee system in New Orleans are largely responsible for the levee failures during the Katrina hurricane. The shortage of refining capacity is directly tied to obstacles raised by environmental organizations.

Had the environmental lobby not blocked the development of the Alaska oil reserves in 1996, the market would be using an additional million barrels per day - from domestic sources - today. Throughout the West, hundreds of thousands of acres of valuable timber are now wasted piles of ashes - because environmental organizations blocked all efforts to market it.

Despite the environmentalists' claims to the contrary, Rep. Tancredo's idea will not "destroy" America. It will invigorate the free market system - the same system that transformed a collection of rag-tag colonists into the most successful nation in the history of the world. Now is the time to sell excess federal lands.

Henry Lamb is the executive vice president of the Environmental Conservation Organization (ECO), and chairman of Sovereignty International.

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