Wednesday, April 27, 2011
There's a really nice discussion going on in the comments about the role of the fedeal government as a landowner in the West. Eric Biber, who has written widely about conservation biology and public lands, splashes cold water on my idea that federally owned land in the West should be auctioned off:
... many important constituencies in the West don't want the lands privatized or turned over to state ownership. Those interests like the free access to the land (for recreation), the subsidies for exploitation (for mining or timber), or because if the states owned the land, they would lose money from it (as opposed to the feds who lose money right now) and they don't want the burden. There's a strong cultural element in the West that values having public land that is "open" for people to do what they want (hike, ORV, pan for gold, hunt) without anyone telling them what to do or to get permission (although this is changing with greater environmental regulations). . . . . Personally, I think privatizing these lands would be a terrible mistake (including for the reasons that Paula indicates -- that the government is more likely to squander the money from selling the lands than squander the lands themselves).
There's a lot of great stuff in both Eric's writing and in the other comments. However, I think the commentators do a better job with the descriptive arguement -- explaining why the public lands haven't been sold -- rather than attacking my position on a normative level.
It may very well be true that the federal government has a role to play in the preservation of some truly wild and open spaces. However, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) alone controls 250 million acres - that's one-eigth of the county's land. Should all of that be in a wilderness "lockbox?" Moreover, agencies like the BLM are involved in lots of other activities besides preservation. The BLM, for example, sells minerals from federal lands to the public, it sells timber, it sells grazing rights, and enters into oil leases. And it seems to go about these things in a very "pro-business" way; The Grazing Service has traditionally been heavily influenced by ranchers, who have succeeded in keeping grazing fees so low that the BLM spends far more managing their grazing programs than they collect in fees (pdf). If we don't trust the federal government to conduct an auction to sell this land, why do we trust them with complicated management tasks that seem better suited to the private sector?