Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Selling public lands to pay off the national debt? Some think so ...

Ed Quillen, writing on High Country News' Goat Blog, says that the idea of selling public lands to help pay off the nation's bloating national debt -- now at more than $10.5 trillion -- is, like chronic heartburn, bubbling up again.

Quillen cites in particular a blog post on Marginal Revolution, in which economist Tyler Cowen argues:

The Federal Government owns more than half of Oregon, Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Alaska and it owns nearly half of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming … It is time for a sale. Selling even some western land could raise hundreds of billions of dollars — perhaps trillions of dollars — for the Federal government at a time when the funds are badly needed and no one want to raise taxes. At the same time, a sale of western land would improve the efficiency of land allocation.

Does a sale of western lands mean reducing national parkland? No, first much of the land isn’t parkland. Second, I propose a deal. The government should sell some of its most valuable land in the west and use some of the proceeds to buy low-price land in the Great Plains.

The western Great Plains are emptying of people. Some 322 of the 443 Plains counties have lost population since 1930 and a majority have lost population since 1990.

Now is the time for the Federal government to sell high-priced land in the West, use some of the proceeds to deal with current problems and use some of the proceeds to buy low-priced land in the Plains creating the world’s largest nature park, The Buffalo Commons.
The idea of whoring -- um, liquidating -- public land comes around whenever the Treasury seems in need of a quick and easy infusion of class. And there is some historical precedent for this, Quillen writes. "The only time in American history that the federal government was totally out of debt came on Jan. 1, 1835, during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, and it was land sales that provided much of the federal income that made this possible."

In another interesting instance, Quillen explains why Texas has so little public land:

Texas has very little federal land. That's a result of the Compromise of 1850. Recall that Texas was an independent republic from 1836 to 1844, and ran up some bills. It also claimed half of New Mexico and a strip that extended north through Colorado into Wyoming. In the Compromise, Texas agreed to its current boundaries. In return, the federal government agreed to pay off the old republic's debts, and the public lands inside the Lone Star State were turned over to the state government instead of being retained by the federal government. Texas managed to get someone else to pay off its "national debt," and got title to its public lands -- that's a better deal than we're likely to see if the federal government starts offering land for sale.

And in recent years, there have been similar, very serious (regardless of how preposterous) proposals. For example: The Forest Service planning to sell some 300,000 acres of public land to pay for a federal program; Sen. Richard Pombo’s proposal to sell some national parks to help pay off the national debt; and the Cato Institute, the highly influential free-market think tank, arguing in favor of selling the Grand Canyon to the Disney Corporation.

The reason this can happen today, Quillen argues, is that most people don't understand what public lands are or are for. And one of the reasons for that is that so much of the nation's federal public lands are in the West.

States with highest percentage of state area that is federal land:

  1. Nevada 84.5%
  2. Alaska 69.1%
  3. Utah 57.4%
  4. Oregon 53.1%
  5. Idaho 50.2%
  6. Arizona 48.1%
  7. California 45.3%
  8. Wyoming 42.3%
  9. New Mexico 41.8%
  10. Colorado 36.6%
While most of the states with the least federal public lands are in the East:
  1. Connecticut 0.4%
  2. Rhode Island 0.4%
  3. Iowa 0.8%
  4. New York 0.8%
  5. Maine 1.1%
  6. Kansas 1.2%
  7. Nebraska 1.4%
  8. Alabama 1.6%
  9. Ohio 1.7%
  10. Illinois 1.8%
(Stats from Strangemaps)

This, in my mind, is one of the greatest challenges to the long-term protection of our public lands: Not just fighting the legal and legislative battles, but also giving people -- everyone -- the whys to go along with the whats and hows. We need a re-engagement with the idea of The Commons, and a re-enchantment with the future generations that those Commons are held in common for.

We need to put the public back in our public lands!

More to come on this ...


  1. hoaring? whoring??

  2. Anyone interested in the Buffalo Commons should look at my Rutgers website, policy.rutgers.edu/faculty/popper. The Buffalo Commons idea originated with me and my wife Deborah Popper, a geographer at the City University of New York/College of Staten Island and Princeton University. I chair the board of the Great Plains Restoration Council, grpc.org, the only group devoted to creating the Buffalo Commons. The idea has no particular link to the Sagebrush Rebellion idea of selling off federal lands. Best wishes,
    Frank Popper
    Rutgers and Princeton Universities
    fpopper@rci.rutgers.edu, fpopper@princeton.edu