“Keep public lands in public hands”

By Nathan Barton

The title of this commentary is taken from a sign showing up in Southeastern Utah and other places, trying to counter the obvious attempts by Trump, his cronies, and the GOP (and other evil people like Libertarians) to sell off every acre of public land as soon as possible. They claim what is being done now, in smoke-filled rooms behind closed doors, is just what happened in Russia when the mafia-nominklatura took all the people’s factories and farms and lands and robbed the state of trillions.

Well, they’re wrong.  Trump won’t sell off the military bases.  Everything else, but his warmongering is more important than giving his buddies, family, and fellow billionaires Fort Hood, Fort Irwin and Joint-Base Lewis-McCord.

Seriously, they really do believe that Trump, his minions, and the GOP and Libertarians (the party – minarchists) want to sell it all: BLM land, USFS land, Park Service land, and even the Mall in DC.  To private business, to placard them with billboards and rename Mount Vernon to “Hilton Mount Vernon” and Rocky Mountain National Park to “Wells Fargo Rocky Mountain National Park,” to paint a McDonalds logo on every natural arch in the country (and that big artificial one in St. Louis: The McDonalds Westward Expansion National Memorial. AND McDonald’s Arches National Park in Utah! (That would be right near Burger King Canyonlands National Park – only fitting since two of the few fast-food chain stores in Moab are the McDonalds and Burger King right across from each other on Main.)

Sorry, back to being serious.

Some of these panicked state-environists will only claim that the various states will get the land.  Of course they are then certain that the states (without the  guiding hand of Big Brother in DC) will sell everything off to the highest bidder (or their biggest buddies). (Thus South Dakota’s Custer State Park will be renamed the “Denny Sanford State Park” (because Custer was a racist, militaristic bully) and in Utah we will have Jon Huntsman Dead Horse Point State Park.)

Sorry, can’t resist.

Even more seriously, though, why do they worry about this?  Because, they tell us, “public land belongs to all Americans.  We all have a right to use it and enjoy it and so do each and every future American – grandchildren and great-great-great-grandchildren.  And nobody is allowed to use it “up.”  Or use it too much of the time – we all have to share just like the kids in the pre-school posters.

But is this really true?  If all these millions of acres which are located in all these states (mostly in the Western States – fortunately, Teddy Roosevelt was a small child during Reconstruction) (note 1 below) really belong to ALL the people of the United States (if not to all the people of the world, as a “World Heritage” that all of humanity now and in the future should have to enjoy, then are all the people enjoying them now? I’m not picky – I realize that there are a few people who don’t enjoy magnificent scenery and the wild outdoors and historical sites and museums and all.  But surely, a majority of Americans should get out and enjoy “their” public lands.  Should. But do they?

According to the NPS, there were 330 million visits to national parks and monuments in 2016.  US population was 327 million.  So, throw in overseas tourists, and it looks like every American gets to an NPS site once a year.  Right?

But that is visits and not people.  The truth is, most people do NOT visit them. Those who DO are often repeat visitors – to the same or different places.  (Consider me: I visited various NPS sites at least a dozen times in 2016. So I skew the results.)  I suspect (pure speculation on my part and some quick calculations) that those 330 million visits were probably done by as few as 80 million people and probably less, due to all these multiple visits to the same parks by the same people. (See my note 2.) And who are these visitors?  They almost certainly are NOT the urban poor, except for the tiny number of more than 400 NPS sites near major cities. (And even then, you seldom see the underclass in places like Liberty Hall (Pennsylvania), Stonewall Tavern (NYC), Golden Gate National Recreation Area (San Francisco), or the battlefields around Atlanta or Nashville or Richmond.)  It is the relatively wealthy – the upper middle class and above – who infest the national parks, monuments, wilderness areas, scenic rivers, and all the rest.

If only 1 in 4 people use these “public lands” then are they really “public?”  More people shopped at Wal-Mart, ate at McDonalds and/or Burger King, and flew on scheduled airline flights (820 million).  Why are those places not “public lands” and “public services?”

Or for that matter, consider something nearer and dearer to most Americans than the “scenic wonders” of America’s parks and forests and seashores.  Football.  I suspect that the number of Americans who watch multiple professional (NFL) football games each year is 2 to 3 times as many as visit a NPS site. So why aren’t football stadiums “public property” and why aren’t they paid for with tax money (realizing that through subsidies and tax “breaks” some are)?  Surely there is more justification for these monuments to recreation and mayhem and crass commerce, than to add George Bush’s birthplace or some strange set of rock formations.

We could address many other problems, and far more able writers and researchers than I have done so.  There is the tragedy of the commons, which you can see at nearly any national seashore and the most popular national parks and monuments: it is “everyone’s land” which means in practice (as with BLM and USFS land and school lands in many states) it is “no one’s land” – abused and misused.  Couple that with the political overtones and general lack of competence of federal agencies, and you have the disaster that today is the lands “owned by the people” and controlled by all the alphabet agencies.  (Not because individuals themselves are necessarily incompetent but that the system is.)

The national parks and monuments are the “crowning jewels” of the vast, millions upon millions, of acres the FedGov “owns.” But the same problem exists with virtually all the other land: the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation (land around reservoirs and such), the Corps of Engineers (again around reservoirs), the Fish & Wildlife Service’s refuges, and more: a small percentage of the population uses them, their management is poor, and it sucks up a lot of money while paying very little.

So the system is broken, and the justification for “keeping public lands public” is bogus.  It might not be better at the state level, but it is hard to see it would be worse.  The best solution, though, is to allow (or restore) private ownership. Non-profit might be more palatable to many but to ensure that these lands and features and historic sites really are going to be available for future generations, the best way is the free market solution.  The details of that are for a future commentary.

Note 1:  Based on what he did right at the beginning of the 20th Century, if Theordore Roosevelt, Progressive, had been in office at the end of the War Between the States, the plantations (and property of any slaveowners) would have been seized.  Some of the land would have gone to freedmen, and some (in towns and cities) gone to “friends” of the Administration – the carpetbaggers, but much would have been kept by the FedGov and no doubt today be part of national forests or military installations.  After all that is what his cousin FDR did to the descendants of loyal Unionists in eastern Tennessee when he drove them off their land to form the Great Smokey Mountains National Park in the 1930s.

Note 2: Money is another important factor. Putting it another way, NPS asked for 4.2 billion from the last administration for FY 2017 and got about $3.2 billion, which means that every person visiting one of their sites (assuming that the number remained constant at 80 million) was subsidized to the tune of $40 this year.

About tpolnathan

Follower of Christ Jesus (christian), Pahasapan, Westerner, Lover of Liberty, Free-Market Anarchist, Engineer, Army Officer, Husband, Father, Historian, Writer.
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3 Responses to “Keep public lands in public hands”

  1. kirk says:

    if ‘returned’ (as if the fedgov ‘owns’ anything it didn’t steal first) to the states, it would put administering the lands in the hands of the states, which would put such administration much closer to ‘the people’. it would not be perfect, but much better than it is now. such lands could actually be used by ‘the people’, contrary to the current state of affairs where it seems the primary jobs of those ‘administering’ the lands is to keep those who own it from using it.

    an additional caveat is that if ‘public lands’ were in the hands of the states, such lands could be sold off. if all such lands became private, the illegal immigration problem would virtually cease due to trespass laws, which are administered by state and local entities, instead of those who want unlimited immigration, regardless of what those immigrating bring to benefit ‘the people’. does ‘free trespass for votes’ sound like the present policy related to these lands?

    in the end, returning such lands to the states and, in turn, the people would increase the freedom of the people. can’t have that, now can we?

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    • Nathan Barton says:

      NO, of course we “cannot” – which is why this “keep public lands in public hands” campaign is being pushed so much.
      It is of interest to note that many people are very short-sighted. They see the federal lands as essential for jobs – all those lovely government jobs and all the secondary jobs (guides and such). But they do not think about the fact that giving us the freedom to own the land and do more on it will provide more opportunity for more jobs and more economic activity in their area. (Of course, some people are so myoptic that they don’t WANT more jobs or more activity – or more freedom, even for themselves.)

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      • MamaLiberty says:

        Indeed… I have stopped even trying to discuss this topic with people here. Most seem to think that all hunting, fishing and other recreational use of land would stop dead if the land was privately owned. Somehow, all of the restrictions, fees, licenses, and so forth sucked out of them by government “managers” are preferable to private land owners who might charge them for entering their property! But most people I’ve talked to have never read about the “tragedy of the commons,” and just don’t see how destructive that is. The terrible forest fires on “public land” of one kind or another should be all the proof they need, but they won’t even look at it.

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