- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2001

Bad legislation never dies; more typically it just fades away, goes into remission, and patiently awaits revival another day.

Take for example H.R. 701, the Conservation and Reinvestment Act, or CARA, which passed the House last year and died in the Senate, but has been picked up, dusted off and thrown back into the congressional sausage-maker by its chief proponent, Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican.

CARA proposes to take $3.1 billion generated annually by offshore oil and gas leases and spend about a third of the money up to $900 million annually on a government land-buying binge. The general public will benefit little from the acquisitions, however, at a time when the mismanagement of public lands has never been more obvious or the average citizen's access to those lands more at risk. The bill's big beneficiaries will be pork-peddling politicians, government bureaucrats, land trusts that game the system, and extreme greens who use the courts to make marionettes of federal land managers.

Federal, state, local and tribal governments combined already control nearly half of all the land in the U.S. Yet those same agencies are notorious for their financial and managerial incompetence and much of the public land under federal "management" is a mess.

Many national forests are disease- and fire-prone tinderboxes, as events last summer showed. Large portions of public range lands are in poor condition. And the "crown jewels" of the National Park System have amassed a $5 billion maintenance backlog even as dozens of new units, many of them "pork parks," have been added to the inventory. In case after case the government has proven itself a poor steward of the land, yet a myth stubbornly persists that private lands are somehow better "protected" in Uncle Sam's hands.

Recognizing the fallacy, the Congressional Budget Office in 1999 recommended a moratorium on any new land acquisitions, suggesting that federal agencies "improve their stewardship of the lands they own before taking on additional management responsibilities."

But there are other reasons why more "public" lands are not in the public's interest. A Clinton-era retreat by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management from their traditional multiple-use philosophies means the vast majority of public lands are off-limits to even responsible forms of energy exploration and resource development something Americans might consider next time they stare in astonishment at gas pump prices or home heating bills.

Having been all but evicted from public lands, resource-based industries increasingly rely on access to private lands to power and provision America. If these private holdings also get gobbled up by the government, removing even more land from productive uses, the economic consequences will be considerable. And especially hard-hit will be Western states, where the federal government already controls the vast majority of potentially productive lands.

If allowed to stand, the Clinton administration's "roadless initiative" and last-minute national monument designations will make millions of acres into de facto wilderness areas, inaccessible to all but the most rugged outdoor enthusiasts. Personal watercraft, off-the-road vehicles and snowmobiles are being banned or severely restricted on many public lands. And even relatively benign outdoor activities like rock-climbing, mountain biking, rafting, cross-country skiing and hiking are facing possible restrictions in other places.

"Public" lands, in short, are becoming exclusive playgrounds for a relatively narrow subset of the American public those who have the time, fitness, experience or inclination for "roughing it" as the welcome mat gets rolled up on citizens who don't choose to recreate in strictly prescribed ways. This exclusionist impulse is encouraged by environmental extremists, ever ready with a lawsuit should some land agency dare to put a citizen's interests or enjoyments above a salamanders'.

Placing even more private lands into "public" hands under these circumstances is foolhardy, economically and environmentally. But it also further empowers the ideological elite inside government and out who presume to tell Americans what they can and cannot do with their lands, now and into the future.

Sean Paige is the Warren Brookes Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.


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