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How much land should the government own?

By Henry Lamb
web posted March 5, 2007

Government - at every level - is addicted to land acquisition.  Local, state, and the federal governments are buying up land as if the last acre had already been created.  

In a nation that was founded on the belief that private property is sacred, and which limited its federal government to own only ten square miles of land, and that which could be purchased from the states with the approval of the state legislature, and then only for "....needful buildings"  - why have governments gone on a land buying binge in recent years?

The answer, invariably, will take some form of the misguided notion, "...to protect it for future generations."        Every acre of land acquired by government, beyond that necessary for public buildings, highways, utilities, military bases, and the like, is actually stealing from future generations.  When government owns the land, future generations cannot own it.  Future generations cannot build a home on it.  Future generations cannot farm or ranch or log, or mine, or do anything with it.  Future generations can only walk on it, if the government permits it, after  paying a fee for the privilege.

Government land ownership is not protecting the land  for future generations; it is protecting land from future generations.

The Bowater Company owns more than 100,000 acres of forest land in 14 Tennessee counties.  Environmental regulations, and other government restrictions, have made logging in the United States, at best, unprofitable, and at worst, impossible.  Bowater wants to sell its Tennessee land.

Environmental organizations immediately demanded that the state buy the land to "protect" it.  Savvy politicians, such as State Representative Mike Turner, and Governor Phil Bredesen, began maneuvering to acquire the land.  Bowater said it wanted about $300 million for the land; Bredesen says he thinks the land is worth about $154 million.  He is negotiating a deal with The Nature Conservancy which he says will limit the state's cost to about $82 million, plus $9 million per year in interest payments - for 20 years.

A little arithmetic begins to cast a long shadow over such a deal.  Assuming that The Nature Conservancy got all its portion of the purchase price from donors, rather than from grants from the federal government (which is not a safe assumption, by any means), the deal would still be a horrible burden for Tennessee taxpayers.

The total cost to Tennessee taxpayers, including interest, would be $262 million.  When budget demands for road improvements, education, and health care are continually rising, can the state afford to invest this large chunk of money into land that will produce no revenue?

Moreover, the removal of this tract of land from the tax rolls  will rob local governments of an important revenue source.  At the White County tax rate of $2.28 per $100 valuation, local governments would be denied more than $3.5 million each and every year - at current land values.  These losses do not begin to include the lost opportunity costs that would occur every time a plot of land did not sell, or every time a home was not built, or every time timber was not harvested.

But proponents will be quick to counter that the state may well wish to harvest some of the timber.  No, no, no, no!  The state has no business being in business in competition with free enterprise.  Besides this, why would the state be able to make a profit at logging, if a private industry could not?

Proponents will be quick to counter that this wonderful open space would bring eco-tourist dollars to replace the lost revenue and lost opportunity costs.  Hogwash with a capital H!  Eco-tourism sufficient to replace the investment costs, the tax revenue, and the lost opportunity costs would require a stream of people so large that the collective footprint would stomp the biodiversity into oblivion, and the concentration of carbon dioxide ( from breathing out) would cause a spontaneous heat wave that would turn the entire region into desert.
Before the Tennessee legislature considers the Governor's proposal, it should first learn how much land in Tennessee is currently owned by the government - federal, state, and local.  Then it should decide how much land in Tennessee the government should own, and how much should be left in private hands - in a free-market society.  Should be balance be 50-50?  Should it be 25-75?  Or should it be as the founders dictated: no more than is required for "... other needful buildings?"

Future generations will curse this generation, if we steal from them the opportunity to pursue the happiness they deserve, happiness built upon the foundation of privately owned property. ESR

Henry Lamb is the executive vice president of the Environmental Conservation Organization (ECO), and chairman of Sovereignty International.






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