- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2002

President Bush's budget includes a conservation tax credit that gives a 50 percent capital-gains-tax break on land sold to the government or land-trust groups.

The budget describes the incentive as a "cost effective, non-regulatory, market-based approach to conservation."

But private-property activists, who typically support the Bush administration, say the tax incentive benefits environmental groups over the private sector and ultimately puts more property and wealth into government hands.

"I don't know anyone outside of environmental groups who thinks the land is better off when it is managed by the government," said Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association in Washington state.

Carol LaGrasse, a member of the Property Rights Foundation of America in New York, said the incentive puts the squeeze on private landowners to sell to the government.

"This is just another nail in the coffin of private-property owners in rural America. It's just terrible," Miss LaGrasse said.

The tax break is one portion of a broad-range initiative to take care of existing lands, said Mark Pfeifle, Interior Department spokesman.

"This is a presidential initiative, which we are supportive of overall, as we work in partnership with private landowners," he said.

The federal government owns more than 635 million acres of the land in North America, according to 2000 figures.

A memo circulating among Western lawmakers said the tax break gives "unprecedented comparative advantage for government and nonprofit agencies over the private sector."

If passed, the tax cut "accelerates the destruction of the economy and tax-base of small and rural communities, particularly if there's high public land ownership," the memo said.

In particular, critics said the tax cut would hurt Western states, where federal, state and local governments own a vast majority of the land: 96 percent in Alaska, 88 percent in Nevada, 70 percent of Idaho and 52 percent of California.

"I have hammered for years, but have never found anyone in federal government to answer the question, 'How much is enough land for the government to own?'" said Henry Lamb, vice president of the Environmental Conservation Organization in Tennessee.

"It continues to grow with our tax money, and I think it's exceedingly dangerous for the government to own the land, because then it owns the resources, which is equal to owning the wealth. Those implications are just too dangerous to even think about, but that is where we are headed," Mr. Lamb said.

Mr. Pfeifle said the administration is actually "whittling away" how much money is spent in new land acquisitions.

The last budget of the Clinton administration in 2001 contained $459 million for land purchases. In 2002, the Bush administration reduced it to $390, and further reduced to $335 million for next year's budget.

Land-trust groups often sell their property to governments for permanent protection.

The largest land trust in North America is the Nature Conservancy. In fiscal 2000, the group sold $84 million of land to governmental agencies and other conservation organizations, according to a financial review by the Better Business Bureau.

Lee Ann Gerhart of the American Land Rights Association in Alaska said the measure is not market-based, but a taxpayer subsidy for the government and conservation groups.

"I don't think of that as equal footing at all. At taxpayer expense, these conservation organizations buy property and usually turn it around and sell it to the government at a profit," Miss Gerhart said.

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