November 3, 2015
The Obama Administration has spent years invading broad parts of the economy from finance to health care, but less noticed is the takeover of, well, actual land. Witness the standoff over a 50-year-old public land program that has devolved into a watering hole for seizing private property.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund, whose Congressional authorization expired on Sept. 30, has since 1965 shelled out more than $16 billion for preserving natural resources and providing “recreation opportunities to all Americans.” Taxing oil and gas leases feeds the fund’s land acquisition program and a state initiative that offers grants for community projects—baseball diamonds, playgrounds and the like.
The fund originally set aside six of every $10 for state priorities, but last year more than 80% of the cash helped the feds buy acreage. Keep in mind that the government already owns roughly 30% of the U.S., including 80% of Nevada and nearly 70% of Utah. The 635 million acre portfolio is so immense that less than 15% of National Forest boundaries are even surveyed and marked. The state program, on the other hand, received $48 million of 2014’s $306 million pot, which is better than the nothing states have reaped in some previous years.
The federal PacMan hopes to gobble up more than 160 plots in 2015, yet the government can’t manage what it already controls. The Interior Department has estimated $20 billion in deferred maintenance among land-management agencies, no surprise to anyone who has fled a public bathroom in Yosemite. Nine in 10 miles of National Park Service roads are crumbling, along with structurally deficient bridges and some 6,700 miles of dirt described as trails in bad shape. Yellowstone’s tab alone exceeds $650 million.
Environmental outfits are howling for the fund’s renewal, and they’re defending a revenue source. Green groups purchase land the feds have been eyeing and then hawk it to the government at a premium. Another abuse: At least 19 states channel Donald Trump and deploy the funds for eminent-domain projects.
President Obama, congressional Democrats and some desperate-for-re-election Republicans are portraying House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop(R., Utah) as a gunslinging outlaw for suggesting that the fund should be reined in, not reauthorized permanently at up to $900 million a year.
Useful updates would include mandating that more spending go toward states, as well as freeing up cash for chipping away at the upkeep backlog and banning the seizure of property. And why not suspend land acquisitions until the feds can account for everything they own? No spending program deserves eternal funding, so reauthorization should be capped at 10 or 20 years.
Many in Washington are eager to promote the program as happy spending that keeps watch over Old Faithful and beautifies your home town. But as with so many environmental causes, the fund long ago turned into an avenue for clinching more federal control.
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