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No more land for government!

By Henry Lamb
web posted December 16, 2002

Government is getting too grabby. No one questions the authority of government to "take" land for a legitimate public purpose, provided, of course, that no "...private property shall be taken for public use without just compensation."

The Constitution provides explicit guidance about "public use" for which land may be taken: "...for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards and other needful buildings."

Nowhere does the Constitution authorize the taking of land for open space, critical habitat, viewsheds, or economic development zones. Nevertheless, all across the country, government at every level, is taking land for these purposes. And, increasingly, government is finding ways to avoid paying just compensation for its acquisitions.

Our founders came from a society in which government owned all the land. In the old country, people could use the land only to the extent that their use of it may please the Crown. This condition was a compelling reason for people to risk their lives crossing the Atlantic, in hopes of securing their own property. It is clear that our founders intended for the land to be owned by individuals - not by government.

The concept of private land ownership was not even questioned in America, until early in the 20th century, when environmentalists saw that socialism - government ownership of land - was a way to protect the forests. Robert Marshal, Aldo Leopold, and Benton Mackaye, who founded The Wilderness Society, advocated the nationalization of all forests as early as 1933.

Seventy years later, the government has effectively "nationalized" virtually all the nation's forests, and wetlands, and deserts, and even farmland. Through the use of eminent domain, governments at every level are simply buying all the land they can afford to buy - with your tax dollars.

The remaining 58 percent of the land still in private ownership has been effectively "taken" by land-use regulations.

Sophisticated legal theories have been developed to convince judges that restrictions on land use do not rise to the level of a Constitutional "taking." After all, the argument goes, a landowner may still pay taxes on his land, and may even walk on it, providing he does not step on a red-legged frog, or bruise a milk-weed - for which severe fines may be imposed.

When government deprives a landowner of the use of his land, for all practical purposes, the government has taken the land. Environmentalists, and others, who challenge this conclusion, should consider this: if government is empowered to take away the use of land from its owners, the same power can take away the use of an automobile from its owner.

The automobile owner could keep his car, polish it, make payments on it, pay insurance, and even sit in it. But he could not use it to produce a livelihood. This is precisely what government has done to landowners.

If we allow government the power to take land from private land owners, we are empowering government to take any private property it may desire, which is the power to force citizens to live as government dictates. This is serfdom, as F.A. Hayek warned us about, in his book, The Road to Serfdom, originally published in 1944.

This same political philosophy has spelled out in great detail how people should live: in sustainable communities, surrounded by government-controlled green-belts (also called buffer zones), as transitional open space to wilderness areas connected by corridors for wildlife.

We are allowing our government to amass the same power exercised by kings and dictators. We are allowing our government to become the same omnipotent power that compelled our forefathers to risk their lives to escape.

We can't escape. But we can correct. The heat of government oppression has risen slowly over the last century. The waters of discontent are not yet boiling, but the steam is certainly rising. Across the land, people are recognizing that government power to control our lives - must be limited.

Perhaps the most important place to draw a line in the dirt, is across the remaining private property in the United States. No more land for the government. Government land, owned for any purpose other than those limited uses authorized by the Constitution, should be returned to the states, or sold to private owners.

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

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