Placing Private Property Rights at Risk

Freeman and Riggs Op-Ed in The Washington Times<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

If the presidential election were based on surface area, there would have been no contest. Perhaps you've seen the map: a color-coded county-by-county dissection of the recent presidential election.While George W. Bush and Al Gore split the popular vote about 50-50, the map shows about 80 percent of the counties coded red for Mr. Bush, the rest (mostly smaller and centered around urban areas) blue for Mr. Gore.What this means, of course, is that rural America votes Republican. Surely elected Republicans are doing all they can to protect that voting base, right?Well, the Republican-controlled House Resources Committee appears to have different plans. They scheduled a mark-up for today of the Conservation and Reinvestment Act, better described as the Land Grab Bill. The bill threatens taxpayers and landowners nationwide.Currently, the billions of dollars received from federal offshore oil and gas leases go into the general treasury. Congress then disperses the money to different programs in the appropriations process. This process forces Congress to balance priorities by deciding whether one program is more deserving of limited federal funds than another.This bill evades this competitive process by locking about $46 billion over 15 years into trust funds for environmental programs.The money will then be “off-budget,” going straight to targeted environmental programs without Congress even catching a glimpse of it.As if violating a principle of fiscal conservatism were not enough, the bill also threatens property owners and anyone who wants to own property in the future. Funding for land acquisition in the Interior Department nearly doubled in the last 10 years, culminating at $421 million last year. But CARA's acquisition funds will more than double even that high sum, providing unprecedented funding for taking private property to hand it over to public officials.The bill specifically earmarks a third of its funding for land acquisition, and much of the other two-thirds can also be used to buy land.Meanwhile, the government already owns about 42 percent of the nation's land.In some states, it owns even more. In Nevada, for example, the federal government owns nearly 90 percent of the land. Yet the bill gives more than $50 million for acquisition there. Real taxpaying folks who own or derive their livelihoods from that land will suffer from this acquisition.In some cases, such land acquisitions may be without the consent of the owner. While the bill's proponents point to provisions limiting acquisition to “willing sellers,” those provisions only apply to one-half of one title in the bill: $450 million of the $3.1 billion.Even “voluntary” acquisition is troublesome. As plenty of landowners in those rural counties can tell you, “willing sellers” are often just resigned sellers, forced into “willingness” by harassment and restrictions around their land.And why cause landowners to suffer when the Land Grab Bill is more likely to harm the environment than help it? The lands already owned by the federal government are in bad shape, as evidenced by last summer's tragic forest fires. The U.S. Forest Service rated more than 60 percent of national forest and other federal resource lands as “very unhealthy” or in “deteriorating health.”The Congressional Budget Office recommended a 10-year moratorium on new federal land acquisition by the Interior and Agriculture Departments — be-cause of their need to improve the stewardship of the land they already have.But in a classic case of the government ignoring its own findings, the bill further rewards these agencies for their failed efforts.Meanwhile, the bill penalizes sound private land management. The rural counties' hard-working landowners who have taken the best care of their property are likely to be the first ones targeted for acquisition, since their land will have the highest values for wildlife.If The Washington Post on May 11 last year and The Washington Times of May 10 last year can both agree that CARA is a bad bill, it seems many of our representatives would concur. But the bill has 235 cosponsors, all of whom seem to be blinded by dollar signs, falling prey to the lure of huge sums of money going to their states. If they put on sunglasses to shield them from the alluring blaze of those dollar signs, the representatives might see that this legislation threatens other possibilities for that money in their state, congressional oversight, environmental stewardship, private property, freedom, and, for Republicans, their vast rural voting base.

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