(Thomas Mitchell/4TH ST8) I’ve said it many times and in so many ways: The federal government needs to divest itself of the vast majority of its vast Western public land holdings.
I’ve said it so often — and I have the links to prove it from this year alone here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here — that Derek Yonai’s piece in Sunday’s Viewpoints section of the Las Vegas Review-Journal seems downright redundant. But, if there is any topic in this economic downturn that deserves redundancy, this may be it.
Yonai, an economics prof from North Carolina, says of the land controlled by the federal government:
“All of this federally owned land is ‘dead property,’ meaning it is not available for development and its value is not being realized. It is like being given an economic engine that can make your life better but having an invisible barrier blocking you from using it.”
He goes on to argue that freeing the state’s land from the traces of the overbearing federal landlord would allow Nevada citizens to create income and jobs — buy mineral rights and hire miners, hire construction workers to build homes and businesses, open industrial parks and factories. “Free Nevada and unleash the entrepreneur.”
An example of how this works was laid out in a speech before the U.S. Senate in 1838 by Daniel Webster, who remarked about the great wealth created by selling public lands to private owners who then put it to good and profitable use:
“In the last three years thirty-seven millions of acres of land have been separated from the wilderness, purchased, paid for, and become subject to private individual ownership, to transfer and sale, and all other dispositions to which other real estate is subject. It has thus become property, to be bought and sold for money; whereas, while in the hands of Government, it called for no expenditure, formed the basis of no transactions, and created no demand for currency. Within that short period our people have bought from Government a territory as large as the whole of England and Wales, and, taken together far more fertile by nature. This seems incredible, yet the returns show it.”
For those who like a little perspective in the grand scale of things, the federally controlled land today in Nevada alone is approximately the same size as all of the United Kingdom — England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and assorted islands — though perhaps not as fertile in the traditional meaning.
In an op-ed article in the Los Angeles Times earlier this year titled “Free the American West: Get the federal government off public lands that are of no national importance,” Robert H. Nelson, who worked in the Interior Department from 1975 to 1993 and now is a prof in Maryland, explained rather succinctly why the federal stewardship is a problem:
“Most public land decisions are made by two federal agencies, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, and involve matters such as the number of cows that will be allowed to graze, the areas available to off-road recreational vehicles, the prevention and fighting of forest fires, the building of local roads, the amount of timber harvesting, the leasing of land for oil and gas drilling, mineral rights and other such details. Outside the rural West, most such decisions are made by private landowners or by state and local governments. In the West, Washington acts as if it knows best.”
And they don’t do a very good job of it, as those in the West can attest — massive wildfires, long delayed mining permits, grazing fees and water rights jerked about, roads closed at a bureaucratic whim.
Since I first read Nelson’s article in March there has been a quote that has stuck in my mind that illustrates the audacity and presumptuousness and disdain of Washington for its Western states. With so much of the land — 85 percent of Nevada for instance — controlled by the federal government, how can we be called states at all.
The quote in Nelson’s piece came from still another prof, Sally Fairfax of UC Berkeley, who has observed that the creation of national forests established “a relationship between the national government and the Western states that is usefully described as colonial.”
How appropriate, I thought. We are colonies, not states.
Only it is worst than that. In her book “Wealth of a nation to be: The American colonies on the eve of the Revolution,” Alice Hanson Jones writes:
“Land in the colonies by 1774 was virtually all privately owned except for such things as some remaining ‘common lands’ in New England owns, sites of courthouses, town halls, jails, churches, customs houses.”
Even the nation against whom we fought a revolution did not have the audacity to control so much land in perpetuity.