Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Rockies and the never-ending federal-private squabbles …

    The sweltering days of July send the mind toward the cool altitudes of the Rocky Mountains.  With this mind, I recently picked up at second-hand store a copy of Frank Clifford’s “Backbone of the World,” in which the author travels to rural locations along the Continental Divide.  A common theme?  Property owners’ complaints about too much federal control and distrust of public access in an area that is increasingly popular for recreation.  So much for a pleasant read without thinking about land use law!
Rockies     In the news is the controversial decision of the Forest Service to allow the Plum Creek Timber Co., the nation’s largest private landowner, to have wider easement rights over roads through federal land in Montana, which often is set in a maddening checkerboard pattern.  The result may be a boom in residential development in western Montana, with concomitant threats to natural resources and local economics.
    It is established federal policy to retain the federal lands that make up much of the area between the front ranges of the Rockies and the high ranges of the Pacific states.  But one has to think that it was a mistake to have the federal government hold on to so much of arid West, and at the same time allow a wide range of private interest on such land –- through grazing and timber access, as well as through easements across the checkerboard.  How much more sense it would have been to sell to private owners much land that is not Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon (and force them to internalize harms to the land), and then bar private interests in the remaining federal lands in remote places.  We might have avoided bizarre quandaries such as the federal subsidization of below-cost timber sales and hedge fund managers driving their Range Rovers across federal easements.

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