Congress avoids buying public land

 

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Thirty-five years ago, in that golden age when a president could engage in White House trysts without worrying about it, one of those presidents endorsed the idea of a self-financing fund to raise money so the government could buy land.

It was a popular idea, so popular that it soon became law, but it was not universally embraced. The National Lumber Manufacturers Association, for instance, opposed it on the grounds that it "poses a threat to private ownership of commercial forest land."

When last observed, private ownership of commercial forest land was still secure, and the Land and Water Conservation Trust Fund proposed by John F. Kennedy was still popular.

If it were not, Minority Leader Richard Gephardt would not have proposed legislation requiring Congress to spend each year all the money - some $900 million - which comes into the fund, mostly from off-shore oil royalties. Gephardt has not been a leader in natural resource or environmental matters, but he is a leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, and a possible presidential candidate, and he can read polls telling him that most voters want more federal land for outdoor recreation and preservation of nature.

But in 1998 as in 1963, most voters does not mean all voters, and there remains a powerful faction in the country - mostly in the West - and in the Congress that thinks the National Lumber Manufacturers Association had a point back then.

If anything, this faction is stronger now than it was in the middle 1960s, when there was hardly a Western congressman - Democratic or Republican - who questioned the wisdom and value of public land. They didn't all agree on how it should be managed, but there was something close to a consensus that there should be more of it.

Now, as quoted in these pages a few weeks ago, the chairman of the House Resources Committee, Rep. Don Young of Alaska, suggested that the very notion of public land is unconstitutional. "I don't see any justification for the federal government owning land," he said, "other than the Statue of Liberty and maybe a few parks, maybe a few refuges."

Forget for a moment the absurd illogic here ("a few parks" could be a prodigious amount of land) or the even more absurd a-historicity (Congress has passed more bills dealing with the public land than with any other single matter), and simply consider the political dynamic. A senior legislator finally articulated a sentiment heretofore expressed only by militia extremists and Catron County (N.M.) nullificationists, but implicit in the votes and statements of several of his colleagues: hostility to the very concept of public land.

Obviously, lawmakers who don't like public land in general will resist adding any particular parcel to it, and this helps explain why Congress has not even released all of the $699 million it appropriated from the fund last year. The final appropriations for Fiscal Year 1998 were approved with a catch - that each project had to be approved again by the chairmen of the Interior Appropriations committees - Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington and Rep. Ralph Regula of Ohio.

This did not hold up money for the two most prominent projects covered by the bill - buying out the New World Mine near Yellowstone National Park (HCN, 4/28/97) and the Headwaters Forest (HCN, 2/16/98) in California. These buyouts will go forward.

But it was not until mid-September that Regula and Gorton released another $191 million of the 1998 appropriation, and at that point $170 million was still in some kind of legislative-budgetary limbo, appropriated but not ... well, appropriated.

As for FY 1999, which starts Oct. 1, the Clinton administration suggested spending a mere $270 million from the fund. The Senate version of the Interior Department Appropriations bill calls for spending $232 million, and this is downright generous compared to the House bill, already passed, which includes only $161 million.

Antipathy to public land is not the only reason Congress is stingy with the trust fund's money. The less it spends from the fund, the more it can put into the general coffers, thereby making the deficit seem smaller (or the surplus larger) than it really is. Then there is Regula, a moderate Ohioan who is not hostile to public lands but who is convinced that some of the money should be used for maintaining existing facilities rather than buying new ones. Environmentalists protest that maintenance should be financed from other funds, that the fund was specifically created to purchase land, and that if the government does not buy some of these parcels soon, private developers will.

All of which is true, but the truths do not eradicate Regula's concern about maintenance, which on its face is not frivolous. Considering that the Congress is not likely to get any more generous with general revenue, using some of the fund's money for maintenance is a reasonable policy.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the contradictory politics of public land than the effort to purchase and preserve New Mexico's Baca Ranch, a 95,000-acre inholding in the Santa Fe National Forest (HCN, 8/3/98).

The Baca Ranch is not all that far from Albuquerque and Santa Fe, which are chock-full of people, or voters as they are sometimes known, most of whom want the land preserved - for hiking, hunting (the Baca has an immense elk herd), or just for its own sake.

Sensitive to his constituents, Republican Sen. Pete Domenici has proposed using Land and Water Trust Fund money to buy the land. But in what seems to be a bow to the anti-public land minority in this state, Domenici has suggested a two-tier, indirect purchase, in which the Forest Service will buy the land, but will not manage it, at least for a while.

Instead, a new entity - a trust made up of people from both the public and private sectors - would manage the land, which would continue to be a working, but not subsidized, ranch. Presumably (I must presume because the senator's office never returned calls seeking firmer information) some public access would also be granted. After 10 years, the trust would expire (or "sunset" in government jargon; unlike some of us, Washington has no shame in creating verbs out of nouns); and the Forest Service would assume full control.

In addition, Domenici's proposal - which is not yet a bill, just an idea - calls for the government to increase sales of "surplus" public land, the revenue therefrom to be used to acquire private inholdings whose owners want to sell to the government.

Attacking the law itself

Perhaps Domenici's idea is part of a Republican policy, or at least a Republican attitude, which might be described as no-net-increase in public land. To keep San Francisco's Presidio from being sold to private developers, public land advocates had to accept a similar public-private trust management plan. Now, Domenici seems to be adding another hurdle - no acquisition without comparable divestiture.

If this becomes precedent, public ownership of forests, mountains, waterfronts and vistas might be held hostage to private ownership of land, where the values - wildlife migration corridors, for instance, or habitat for non-cuddly species - are less obvious but no less important.

Domenici is a pro-ranching, pro-development conservative who now and then gets petulant about environmentalists. But as a lawyer and a responsible legislator who no doubt has read the Constitution, he is hardly part of Don Young's anti-public-land faction. But he does have to render some obeisance to the folks in Catron County and elsewhere who agree with Don Young, and who argue that nothing in the Constitution authorizes the Feds to own land, does it?

Yes, Article IV, Section 3 (paragraph 2) and Article I, Section 8, but let's not quibble over reality. The politics of the situation dictate that supporters of the Land and Water Conservation Trust Fund must now deal with a faction - small but well-positioned - which opposes the Fund's very purpose.

Things have changed since 1963, and not only because none of Jack Kennedy's tootsies squealed to a grand jury. Jack Kennedy and his allies did not have to argue the essential bona fides of public land. Whatever one thinks (and one may think whatever one pleases on such a subjective matter) about the change in sexual mores in the ensuing generation, the progressive decadence of American intellectual life is unarguable.

Jon Margolis lives in Vermont and frequents Washington, D.C.

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