Our Miserly Uncle

Although it may be heresy for a libertarian or a conservative to say, I really like living in Washington. I try to be grateful every day that I have the Capitol dome and the monuments nearby. The cherry blossoms in Spring are really unparalleled. The metro is convenient and easy to use, and the museums are free.

I’m also grateful that in Washington, D.C., the federal government has a relatively small presence—at least by one measure.

Uncle Sam owns 10,000 acres in Washington D.C., a city that is 39,000 acres in total. That means the federal government owns 26.3 percent of the district. Compared to the rest of the country, that’s a small presence.

Of the 2.271 billion acres of land in the entire United States, the federal government owns 672 million acres, or 29.6 percent. That’s right: nearly one-third of America belongs to the government. That’s up from 1997, when the federal government only owned 563 million acres. Uncle Sam is growing.

Some liberals might think this is great. Others wish the government held more land. A few socialists, certainly, long for the day all land is “public land.” In fact, that’s one way you can spot a liberal: he or she uses the term “public land,” to describe government property.

The insistence that government ownership of something makes it “public,” is a symptom of wishful thinking. We’d all like to think that, because we are a democracy, the government is just an arm of us, the people. That’s the way many on the left talk. Ted Kennedy says that when taxes are cut, the money is “gone.” The media say that tax cuts “cost” something.

This way of talking, like calling government land “public land,” assumes that the government really is just our trustee, and not an institution with its own distinct interests—or a bunch of institutions with their own various distinct interests—possibly at odds with the interests of the people. When you pay your taxes, according to the likes of Michael Moore, the money goes from being “yours” to being “ours.” Similarly, when the federal government takes someone’s land, it becomes “ours” too.

If that’s the case, “we” should be a bit more generous with “our property.”

The land the federal government owns isn’t just any land. This is some choice real estate we’re talking about, containing most of the nation’s accessible fuels. Uncle Sam is not generous with it, either.

When it comes to oil and natural gas underground, the stuff we care about is the stuff we can get to. These resources are called “proved reserves and undiscovered technically recoverable resources.” A recent federal study examined the state of this accessible fuel. Of the liquid fuel covered in the study (mostly petroleum, but some others, too), Uncle Sam is sitting on 60 percent of it. The same is true for natural gas.

That means that the federal government is the gatekeeper to a significant majority of our potential energy supply—and it keeps a tight lock on some of it. A smorgasbord of federal agencies, departments, regulations, laws, and bureaucracy put significant restrictions or outright bans on 43 percent of federally controlled liquid fuels and 36 percent of the federal government’s natural gas.

Over 105 million “public” acres in the U.S. is officially “wilderness.” This means there are all sorts of things you can’t do on it, including riding your bike. Most federal land, if it’s not fenced off entirely, has serious restrictions on what you can do there—restrictions often created by unelected bureaucrats.

As long as the federal government is in the business of collecting real estate, it makes sense that it would create these restrictions. You don’t want people holding a grand prix in the Grand Canyon, or chopping ancient redwoods for firewood. These restrictions often have the very nice effect of preserving unique habitats or beautiful countryside. But there are bad sides of this, too.

First, government control of land subjects land management to the whims of the cheap theater that is Washington politics. Witness Bill Clinton’s last-second “roadless rule” applying a one-size-fits-all solution to all national forests, possibly increasing the danger of forest fires, but mostly putting George W. Bush in the uncomfortable position of having to undo this seemingly green regulation.

But more importantly, as the government takes up more and more land, and restricts more and more activities on this land, it draws a line between “the environment” and the rest of our lives. Essayist, poet, and Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry makes this critique of the modern environmentalist movement. “The environment” becomes where we canoe, or study spotted owls. Then we go back to the real world, where we live and work.

In Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania, the federal government owns less than three percent of the land. In Arizona, Alaska, Oregon, Wyoming, and Idaho, the feds own 50 percent or more. In Nevada, they own 91.9 percent of the land.

Private property is fine on the East Coast, where the bureaucrats and elites live and work, but we need the government owning the West. After all, the West is “the environment.” This is why killing suckerfish is fine for expanding the Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River—the Potomac River is an obstacle to be crossed on your commute to work in D.C. But don’t disturb the salmon in Klamath Falls—that’s “the environment.”

In all this, I see one shining hope. Washington, D.C. is a swamp. Here’s hoping some egrets land here one year, and the EPA calls it an endangered wetland, and sends all these busybodies packing.