Hellacious Acres: Time To Freeze Uncle Sam's Real-Estate Portfolio

Bozeman, Montana — The next Congress should enact a moratorium on land nationalization. The feds should stop fleecing exhausted taxpayers for fresh billions to purchase new acreage for Uncle Sam to mismanage. 

Washington, D.C. already lords over some 650 million acres, or 26.7 percent of America. These 1,015,625 square miles are roughly equal to all of Alaska, Texas, and California combined. The federal government owns 45.3 percent of California, 48 percent of Arizona, 57.45 percent of Utah, 69 percent of Alaska, and 84.5 percent of Nevada. No continental state from the Rockies west is less than 30 percent federal, as are Montana and Washington.

But that is not enough. 

Uncle Sam is like a hyperactive brat who trips over his abandoned train set and stumbles over his spilled Legos while running out to slap a shiny, new dirt bike on Daddy’s credit card. Washington constantly expands the federal estate, even while mishandling its existing properties.

In March 2009, President Obama designated 2 million federal acres as “wilderness,” thus limiting public access and uses thereon. Unsated, Obama last April announced America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, a national listening tour to concoct new ways for Washington to interfere in natural-resource matters. A report due November 15 will include ideas for “creating corridors and connectivity” across exterior spaces, most likely through land procurement.

Even scarier is a secret Bureau of Land Management (BLM) discussion paper leaked to Senator Jim DeMint (R – South Carolina) and Rep. Rob Bishop (R – Utah). Labeled “Internal Draft — NOT FOR RELEASE,” this document confirms the federal government’s infinite desire for physical enlargement.

BLM advocates “expanded landholdings” and “acquiring parcels adjacent to its current holdings…” These envirocrats also argue that “Should the legislative process not prove fruitful…BLM would recommend that the Administration consider using the Antiquities Act to designate new National Monuments by Presidential Proclamation.” So, if Congress fails to grip federal acreage even more tightly, Obama should grab it by decree.

BLM lists 14 such potential monuments, from New Mexico’s 58,000-acre Lesser Prairie Chicken Preserve to California’s 3 million-acre Modoc Plateau. All told, these “Treasured Landscapes” represent approximately 12.85 million federal acres that would shift from mixed-use to virtually untouchable status. Such restrictions on these 20,078 square miles would be like Washington, D.C. banning nearly all activity in Massachusetts and Vermont, save for hiking.

BLM also cites seven prospective “land-rationalization” efforts, from 80,000 acres on Montana’s Upper Missouri River (estimated cost: $24 million) to 1.62 million acres in Wyoming’s Upper Green River Valley ($2,383,260,000). BLM wants $4.1 billion to nationalize at least 1.8 million acres. These 2,812.5 square miles are a bit larger than all of Delaware.

“This is only part of the entire document, and just addresses BLM,” says Melissa Subbotin, spokeswoman for the Congressional Western Caucus. “The Obama Administration has refused to turn over the rest of this memo, even though they publicly have acknowledged that there are sections concerning the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service. The true designs of this entire document are enormous.” Subbotin added “It is exceptionally frustrating for us. Those who drafted this memo are gleaning from a host of sources. There really isn’t much succinct definition to their intentions, motivation, or long-term goals — other than simply to lock up public land and put an end to multiple use.”

The notion of even more soil under Uncle Sam’s boots is aggravating given the chaotic state of the federal land portfolio. According to the Congressional Research Service, BLM already has a deferred-maintenance backlog of at least $480 million. At the Fish and Wildlife Service, $2.4 billion in fixes cry for attention. The US Forest Service needs $5.3 billion of work, while the National Park Service awaits $8.2 billion in road, trail, and building renovations. Why not perform these repairs before nabbing more land to neglect?

Failed federal stewardship — from refusing to thin dense foliage to restricting salvage logging of dead trees — lets lightning bolts transform forests into ashes. Nationalizing more acres will mean even more wildfires, which will cremate birds, butterflies, and other creatures.

“In business, insolvent organizations typically don’t buy more assets,” observes Reed Watson, a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Montana. “Instead, valuable parts are broken up and purchased by more effective managers who, then, increase revenues and generate profits. Uncle Sam is doing exactly the opposite.”

With America $13.45 trillion in debt, spending reduction must start somewhere. Freezing Washington’s real-estate empire is an excellent place for the incoming Congress to exhibit a scintilla of fiscal sanity.