Private Property vs Public Lands

R.O. Voight

February 07, 1999

Why should there be any contention between public land and private land ownership? It has become an issue because of the tremendous acreage that the federal government owns now in this country, and the billions of dollars being discussed in Congress to purchase more land. Of course the driving force behind this new proposed acquisition is the environmental movement and its minions.

Federal and state government land acquisition departments, working in concert with The Nature Conservancy, The Conservation Fund, The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Land Trust Exchange -- and the really radical groups like the Southwest Center for Biodiversity, Forest Guardians, etc. - have through their last 20 years of State Heritage programs identified most of the key and most productive private lands in America.

These groups know every source of water on private lands, every harvestable forest land, and every piece of ancient timber land in private hands in America. The enviros and the federal agencies are now extraordinarily accomplished at strategic acquisition of private land. They have become experts at taking specific lynchpin acreages that can prevent other land owners in the valley or watershed from using or developing their property.

Our Forefathers never envisioned, in the Constitution, the federal government owning huge tracts of land. The only provision they made was for federal buildings and military installations. It was Congress in the 20th century that authorized national parks and other federal land ownership. The enviros and the federal agencies are now ballooning that ownership out of all proportion. In New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey, only one half of one percent of the land is held by the federal government. By contrast, in California, 48% of the land is owned by the federal government; in Nevada it is 89%; and in Arizona and Idaho it is over 75%.

In addition to this land control by the federal government, the United Nations has designated 20 World Heritage Sites and 47 Biosphere Reserves within the United States. These sites comprise more than 51 million acres of U.S. territory, including 68% of all U.S. National Parks. Many more World Heritage sites are contemplated here by the United Nations and the Department of Interior. The existing designations have had no Congressional oversight, nor any Congressional hearings. These U.N. designations have frequently been used to impose new regulations on public lands - regulations formulated by international bureaucrats who are not accountable to the American Public. The recent action preventing mining near Yellowstone National Park was dictated by the U.N., with willing accomplices in the Department of Interior.

Here in Maine the federal government, state government, and conservation groups have aligned to force an impressive onslaught in 1999. They are establishing billion dollar budgets to buy the land. A recent BDN article by Sierra Club's Jack Biscoe uses the enviro "spin" that the Maine forests must be "saved”. Saved for What? Saved from What? This ignores the reality that there are now 3 million more acres of forest than there were in 1840. The health of the forest is better than it ever was, under the current silviculture technology, and forest products are in greater volume than any time in history. And the key is that over 95% of that forest is in private ownership.

Public land in Maine is about 5% of its total. The federal government owns Acadia National Park, Moosehorn Wildlife Refuge, Petit Manan Refuge, Sunkhaze Reserve, the Appalachian Trail, White Mountain National Forest, and a few other small pieces. The State owns, in the Bureau of Parks and Lands, 477,273 acres; Baxter State Park, 219,846 acres; IF&W, 114,545 acres; Parks and Historic Sites, 92,607 acres; and they record 25,563 as miscellaneous. As a point of forest interest, the Bureau of Parks and Lands has 356,868 of their acreage under Timber Management, which means that they regularly cut timber on that land. The money from that sold timber goes into the operating budget of the Bureau.

Even with this state acreage there are inadequate funds and lack of qualified personnel to manage the land properly. This is an evaluation shared by many in the industry. To consider increasing the state owned acreage would only exacerbate the situation. Making the money situation even worse, is the fact that no taxes are collected on public land.

Private property is the foundation of American wealth and growth and culture, just as postulated by our Forefathers. Thus it follows that the success and historic eminence of our Maine Forests exists because of private ownership, and not because of some oddity of fate or geography. And to attempt to "save" the Maine forests by making them public is an insanity of the first order. It simply defies logic and rationality.

Among the 2,956 proposed bills in the State Legislature this year is a bill to place a limit, a cap, on the acreage of State owned land. It proposes that the limit be 7% versus the present 5%. This would be a 40% increase over the present acreage. However, even to reach this amount of acreage, the state budget must be increased considerably to be able to manage the land they now own, and then increased again to reach and attain the 7% limit. From a budget point of view, it seems unreasonable to even consider any increase, for the historic reality is that it hasn't happened in the past, isn't happening now, and what are the chances it will be budgeted in the future?

Just as a footnote to show how comprehensive this onslaught is, there is an item of $13.2 million dollars in President Clinton's Budget for acquisition of Maine's Northern Forest.

R.O. "Bob" Voight is a founding member of the Maine Conservation Rights Institute.

"Courtesy of Scott Fish,"