The Spectacle Blog

The Articles of Conflagration: Federal Land Grabs Out West

By on 6.12.14 | 2:57PM

The Bureau of Land Management and the National Forest Service own 600 million acres of land in the West—more than the Eastern seaboard, Texas, Kansas, and France combined. Ninety-one percent of these federal lands are located west of the Colorado/Nebraska line.

The federal government owns 84.5 percent of the land in Nevada. In Oregon, Idaho, and Utah, this number is above 50 percent.

The Articles of Confederation established the United States as a confederation of sovereign states. The Constitution grew the federal government, but still preserved expansive rights for the states in the Tenth Amendment. Yet these Western states are dependent on whatever discretionary spending the federal government is willing to grant them, seeing as they tax the land. In effect, this dependency constitutes vulnerability, especially given that discretionary spending will decrease as our budget deficits catch up to us.

Furthermore, federal lands are often horribly managed—allowed to overgrow, dry out, and then conflagrate uncontrollably. State-operated, multiple-use lands result in positive net revenue where as their federal counterparts average a 91 cent loss per acre of land.

The government fears that relinquishing land to the states will lead private entities to “rape, ruin and run” the land. However, residents of these states have just as much interest, if not more, in taking care of their immediate environment. This assumption on the part of government that they know better is something economist and political philosopher Friedrich Hayek calls “the fatal conceit.”

Thomas Sowell expanded on Hayek’s idea in his book Knowledge and Decisions:

If you start from the belief that the most knowledgeable person on earth does not have even one percent of the total knowledge on earth, that shoots down social engineering, economic central planning, judicial activism and innumerable other ambitious notions.

For the government, keeping millions of acres of land isn’t about the land itself; it’s about control and power.

“The idea that you can manage [these lands] better from DC is presumptuous,” said Carl Graham, director of the Sutherland Institute. The local people understand the weather, species, geography, soil conditions, and time-tested techniques for land management, and are thus in the best place to conserve these lands. Native Americans managed their land long before the overreach of federal fingers. The people closest to the land have what Hayek called knowledge of “particular circumstances of time and place.”

Graham’s desire to reignite the Sagebrush Rebellion is consistent with new federalism—a confusing name for a movement initiated by Ronald Reagan to give power back to the states. 

According to the Center for Self-Government in the West: "The opening up of federal lands would lead to $26.5 billion in annual gross regional product, more than $5 billion in tax revenue for local, state and federal governments, and roughly 208,000 jobs.”

Furthermore, billions of dollars of taxpayer money go toward mismanaging these lands annually. It’s time for a Sagebrush Re-rebellion.

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