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It's time for new owners

By Henry Lamb
web posted July 1, 2002

It's too late to ask why the west is burning, everyone already knows it is the result of absurd environmental policies that have prevented logging to thin the fuel; the "roadless" policy that prevents firefighters from having access to the forests; and the Endangered Species Act, that won't allow heavy equipment in critical habitat to cut firebreaks.

When volunteers brought their own equipment to help fight the Colorado fire, Kim Martin, the Incident Commander for the Forest Service, told the volunteers, "The equipment is too heavy. It will tear up the land." The volunteers could do nothing but watch the forests burn.

Every environmental organization that has sued, or lobbied to prevent logging, and to close forest roads, should be required to man the front lines against every wildfire that burns.

A thick clowd of smoke rises from the raging wildfire near Forest Lakes, Ariz. on June 26
A thick clowd of smoke rises from the raging wildfire near Forest Lakes, Ariz. on June 26

The smoke rising from West of the Mississippi raises another, bigger question: why does the federal government own most of the land in the West in the first place?

America was built on the principle of free enterprise, which begins with private ownership of land and resources. Nearly half of America is now owned by the government - federal, state, and local. How can free enterprise exist if government owns the land and resources?

Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution sets forth clearly the purposes for which the federal government may purchase land "...with the consent of the Legislature" of the state in which the land is located, "for the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals, dock-yards, and other needful buildings;"

There's not a word in the Constitution about the 400,000 scorched acres in Arizona, or the 200,000 acres wasted in Colorado, or the two million acres that have burned this year. Why does the federal government own it?

Until early in the 20th century, the land owned by the federal government was the object of divestiture. The prevailing view was to acquire land for U.S. citizens, but to get it into private hands as quickly as possible. That's why we had a Homestead Act that encouraged people to move west.

Green groups, notably, the Wilderness Society, caught up in fashionable socialism, agitated for the nationalization of all forests, and continued pressing government to end the land give-away, and finally, to lock up all the land that remained in the federal estate. Why?

Years ago, the reason given was to ensure that U.S. citizens would have the wood, minerals, and other resources needed by a growing nation. No more. Green groups have all but stopped logging, mining, and even grazing on federal land. Wilderness and Monument designations have locked out humans from hundreds of millions of acres of this so-called public land.

Now, the fashionable excuse for federal ownership is "to protect biodiversity." The biodiversity in Arizona and Colorado, and the rest of the West, can not afford to be protected by the feds.

There is no legitimate reason for the federal government to own a third of all the land in the United States. If it is right and good for the feds to own 83 percent of Nevada, why, then, should the feds not own 83 percent of New York, or Pennsylvania? It makes no sense. States can manage their own land better than the feds. Private owners can manage their land better than any government.

Divestiture of the federal estate is not a new idea. Many fine politicians have met their doom by trying to promote this idea. Politicians, though, tend to sway in the breeze of public opinion. In the last half of the 20th century, hot air emissions from green extremists have increasingly kept the political tiller turned toward the absurd.

Looking at the charred ruin of wasted forests and roasted wildlife, to say nothing of the ashes of hundreds of homes, it's time to step back and seriously ask, why do we continue to allow the federal government to hold title to our land?

The federal land in which private citizens have a property right - either water, grazing, logging, mining, or whatever, should be offered for sale first, to those individuals. All other federal land, which does not qualify under Article I, Section 8, should be relinquished to the state in which the land lies, for disposition by the state.

The rush to acquire more and more land for "open space," should be halted, and reversed. In a free enterprise society, the market will provide the open space that the people want.

Green pressure groups have been successful in their efforts to transform America from a free
enterprise society, into the socialist society envisioned by the Wilderness Society in the 1930s. It's no longer called a socialist vision, it's now called a vision of sustainability. Call it what you will. A society in which government owns the sources of production, and controls the use of private land is not a free society.

It's time for government to get out of the real estate business.

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

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • Burn, baby, burn! by Henry Lamb (June 24, 2002)
    The latest spate of forest fires proves once again that Henry Lamb is right about environmentalists and the government that listens to them

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