Another Perspective

Reagan on Mt. St. Helens

Why Robert Smith is wrong about Ronald Reagan's environmental record.

By 9.10.13

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Last week in The American Spectator, CEI’s Robert Smith criticized the organization I head, the R Street Institute, for celebrating the anniversary of Ronald Reagan's dedication of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Some of Smith’s arguments have merit and aren’t points we’d dispute. However, in the end, he misses the point.

Among our areas of agreement: private land ownership is valuable, and private efforts at conservation and responsible land management should be encouraged and rewarded. Most land in the United States is in private hands and should remain that way. Many public lands should be sold off to the private sector or opened to private use and development. 

In addition, we must put an end to senseless mandates on private property and dirty tricks that degrade the value of privately held land. Even the Endangered Species Act, a sacred cow to much of the environmental movement and a favorite of the likes of Newt Gingrich, ought to be reviewed.

But conservation of public lands is not an all-or-nothing tradeoff. That’s where we part ways with Smith. 

Smith claims that federal acquisition of land "undermines conscientious private stewardship of land, waters, and other natural resources." Certainly the amount of land the federal government holds should be constrained, but the truth is, effective public management of a limited number of acres can and should go hand-in-hand with private management. It necessarily supports it. Advocates of limited government should see the value in this dual strategy.

Ronald Reagan certainly did. Here’s how he put it in his 1988 Report of the Council on Environmental Quality: 

The preservation of parks, wilderness, and wildlife has also aided liberty by keeping alive the 19th century sense of adventure and awe with which our forefathers greeted the American West. Many laws protecting environmental quality have promoted liberty by securing property against the destructive trespass of pollution. In our own time, the nearly universal appreciation of these preserved landscapes, restored waters, and cleaner air through outdoor recreation is a modern expression of our freedom and leisure to enjoy the wonderful life that generations past have built for us. 

The Weyerhaeuser lands that Smith spends much time discussing in his piece offer a case-in-point. This privately owned land serves a completely different purpose than the publicly held lands, and both types of management make sense. The national monument at Mount St. Helens is dedicated to preserving history and protecting the area's heritage. The Mt. St. Helens eruption was a major historical event that's worth remembering and preserving. 

Weyerhaeuser's private land, on the other hand, serves as a tree farm. Weyerhaeuser works with the federal government, and certainly wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) want to actually own and manage the mountain or its historic sites. Indeed, even suggesting that it do so would erode its fundamental nature as a profit-making company.

And while the Land and Water Conservation Fund is certainly in need of reforms, it can be incredibly effective in working with timber companies and private land owners through programs like the Forest Legacy Program. Efforts to strip landowners of their rights must be resisted. But where there is mutual willingness and benefit, these types of conservation programs should be encouraged by conservatives.

This takes us to Smith's most important point, regarding government mismanagement of public land. This is unquestionably the biggest problem encouraged by overzealous acquisition and creation of parks, and for this reason, the amount of land the government administers should be restricted. But there are some lands the private sector doesn’t want and others that simply ought to be preserved because of their beauty and history. We shouldn't convert every acre with a tumbleweed or creek into federal land. But nor should we pretend that it is impossible to achieve efficient federal land management that allows for resource extraction and development to the maximum extent that makes sense. 

We agree with Robert Smith that the government does at this point own too much land. But that fact shouldn't stop conservatives from thinking about which lands should be managed and how to do so successfully. Rather than continually acquiring land and creating a never-ending succession of new national parks (as the Clinton administration did), the federal government should decide the amount of land it can manage effectively and decide which areas to preserve. In some cases, it might be sensible to endorse a "no net gain" policy that would require the sales of some land every time the federal government bought new land.

Smith points out that Reagan's strategy for adding land focused on finding bipartisan support from the states that owned the land. This is a good strategy that’s perfectly consistent with celebrating the national monument system. Reagan’s emphasis on resource production also is one that should be carried forward as strategy for public land management evolves, rather than the liberal strategy of restricting development as much as possible. 

But in today’s policy environment, it simply isn’t feasible or desirable to wish away the National Parks Service, national monuments, or public lands altogether. The economic, cultural, and social gains that come from well-managed public lands make a sufficiently strong argument for keeping them. As is often the case, Reagan himself put it best in 1984 when he said:

If we've learned any lessons during the past few decades, perhaps the most important is that preservation of our environment is not a partisan challenge; it's common sense. Our physical health, our social happiness, and our economic well-being will be sustained only by all of us working in partnership as thoughtful, effective stewards of our natural resources.

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About the Author

Eli Lehrer is president of the R. Street Institute in Washington, D.C.