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Ed Quillen | Nov 17, 2008 09:37 AM

Given the size of the federal debt, $10 trillion and growing, it shouldn't be a surprise that there are proposals to reduce it. And why go through the pain of raising taxes or reducing spending when the federal government could just sell some public land -- abundant in the West -- and apply the proceeds to the debt?

There is some historical precedent for this. The only time in American history that the federal government was totally out of debt came on Jan. 1, 1835, during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, and it was land sales that provided much of the federal income that made this possible.

Selling federal land for deficient reduction was recently proposed at the website marginalrevolution. Not all the money should go to debt payments; some should go toward buying private land in the depressed areas of the Great Plains to create the Buffalo Commons.

The land sales proposal got the attention of Tobin Harshaw at the New York Times.

From my reading of those pieces and their comments, I get the idea that the rest of the country doesn't know much about our federal land, which comes in many varieties: Forest Service, Park Service, BLM, military reservation, Indian reservation, etc. And the likely buyers, such as energy companies, are interested in the minerals under the land, which they can already claim or lease, not the land itself.

At any rate, this something to keep an eye out for because the notion might gain some traction.

While tracking this down, I ran across this interesting article, which posits that the West is leading the nation in many areas. However, its definition of the West is rather expansive, since it includes Texas.

Granted, Texas has some Western attributes (i.e., cowboy hats, cattle, vast stretches of dry prairie). But politically, it's a Southern state -- in presidential races, it's voted the same way as Mississippi in every election since 1968, and that's true of no other state out here.

Further, Texas has very little federal land. That's a result of the Compromise of 1850. Recall that Texas was an independent republic from 1836 to 1844, and ran up some bills. It also claimed half of New Mexico and a strip that extended north through Colorado into Wyoming. In the Compromise, Texas agreed to its current boundaries. In return, the federal government agreed to pay off the old republic's debts, and the public lands inside the Lone Star State were turned over to the state government instead of being retained by the federal government.

Texas managed to get someone else to pay off its "national debt," and got title to its public lands -- that's a better deal than we're likely to see if the federal government starts offering land for sale.


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