June 5, 2006
Exposing the Dirty Little Secret: The Federal Government Massively Affects Land Use
It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that the federal government has no business in land use regulation, that decisions about what should be built and where must be made at the local level, where people understand their landscapes and have a strong vested interest in doing the right thing.
This view has lots of political support. Initiatives as diverse as reshaping the federal flood insurance program and enhancing the Endangered Species Act have foundered amid accusations that they would produce, in effect, unacceptable federal control over local land use decisions.
This view is wrong, at least according to Bruce Babbitt and Roger G. Kennedy. In new books, they say the federal government has long played a powerful role in local land use decisions. But its influence has been disguised — as tax deductions for mortgages, as highway programs or as logging concessions.
Both senior officials in the Clinton administration, Mr. Babbitt, former interior secretary, and Mr. Kennedy, who headed the National Park Service, cite different examples and offer different suggestions. Their underlying message, however, is the same.
If development has scarred American landscapes and shredded ecosystems — and it has, Mr. Babbitt and Mr. Kennedy argue — much of the damage has been done with the connivance of the federal government. They say it is time to marshal the federal government's legislative, scientific, financial and even moral resources to solve the problems that are the legacy of these decisions.
Their books have somewhat misleading titles. Mr. Babbitt's is "Cities in the Wilderness," when in fact he advocates keeping unnecessary development out of the wilderness. Mr. Kennedy's book, "Wildfire and Americans," tells engrossing tales of the American experience with fire and makes an array of recommendations for dealing with fire threats, but his thinking applies to far more than burning brush or timber.
The authors argue that a patchwork of federal policies, accreted over generations, has dispersed too many people into places they should not be — in landscapes too delicate to tolerate heavy use, as Mr. Babbitt says, or in places like fire-prone slopes where it is now too dangerous to live, as Mr. Kennedy asserts.
As examples, Mr. Babbitt cites the Everglades, where generations of federally sponsored interference severely damaged an important ecosystem; farmlands where streams and grasses have been ravaged by farm policies that produced what he calls "agricultural sprawl"; and waterways and watersheds degraded by overuse and pollution, much of it supported by taxpayer dollars.
Mr. Kennedy cites the ways people were encouraged to settle in fire-prone areas, the forest policies that made a dangerous situation even worse, and the cost in money and lives routinely paid for these bad decisions. And he notes that the same kinds of policies and programs also encourage unwise building in flood-prone areas.
Mr. Kennedy attributes postwar patterns of American development to two of the 20th century's most notorious top-down thinkers: Hitler and Stalin. Among other things, he writes, Hitler taught Eisenhower the usefulness of autobahns for the quick movement of troops and materiel, and the difficulty of destroying industrial infrastructure if it is well dispersed. And after Stalin got the bomb, Mr. Kennedy goes on, American leaders concluded that the nation would survive thermonuclear war only if its population moved out of the cities and scattered.
A result, as Mr. Kennedy and others have argued, was federal mortgage incentives, insurance programs and other initiatives that dispersed people into unsettled areas. The biggest incentive of all was the creation of the interstate highway system, built, officials said at the time, not to enhance commuting to the exurbs but for the nation's defense.
But as Mr. Kennedy notes: "Property values are not set in the heavens. They too rise with demand, which may be expected to increase when customers are delivered to the sellers on federally subsidized roads, carrying money provided by federally subsidized mortgage payments, and assured of cheap power because the federal government has built for them dams and a power distribution grid."
Mr. Babbitt says much the same about efforts to extract resources from the land, particularly oil and gas. The most damage is done not by mining or drilling itself, he writes, but by the construction of roads the enterprises need. Where the roads go, development often follows.
Mr. Babbitt and Mr. Kennedy argue that decisions made with other problems in mind — the cold war or the energy crisis, for example — have had lasting effects on the landscape. Then, the consequences were not taken seriously. Mr. Kennedy says, "Now, finally, they should be."
But how to approach the problem? A first step, both Mr. Babbitt and Mr. Kennedy say, is to acknowledge the federal government's role in land use decisions. "The notion that land use is a local matter has come to dominate the political rhetoric of our age," and it is just wrong, Mr. Babbitt writes.
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