Now is the Time for the Buffalo Commons

by on November 13, 2008 at 7:41 am in Economics, History, Science, Travels | Permalink

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.  See the map for more.  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.

Mapowns_the_west

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.

Hat tip to Carl Close for the pointer to the map.

cork November 13, 2008 at 8:05 am

Is it mere coincidence that the Texas federal lands look like a mini version of the state itself?

Question1 November 13, 2008 at 8:09 am

I am curious how this is supposed to work. I have heard some banks are asking for as much as 30% down on loans; so where are most Americans supposed to find the capital to buy land? Also, what is the motivation to buy those lands right now? Yes they are beautiful, but is there really a large market for them with money being tight for so many Americans? Are people willing to make such an unnecessary expenditure?

Sammler November 13, 2008 at 8:11 am

I’ll give you 24 cents for Nevada.

Dan Cole November 13, 2008 at 8:20 am

“a sale of western land would improve the efficiency of land allocation.”

Alex, this is true if and only if the buyer values the land more highly than the seller, and in that case it would be true tautologically. It is not an argument for selling public lands.

Speedmaster November 13, 2008 at 8:33 am

Wow, I had no idea it was so much!!!

Sean November 13, 2008 at 8:45 am

Many Arizonans have been calling on this for a long time. While I dont believe that it really affects the Phoenix area all that much, preserving the vast forests of Northern Arizona has seen house prices continue to rise with very little added supply and steadily increasing demand. Particularly, in Flagstaff.

Anonymous November 13, 2008 at 8:53 am

As a taxpayer and one of the owners of said land, I can tell you we should have done this 3 or 4 years ago, when prices were still rising.

Why would we sell now, when real estate prices are falling? And going to fall even further?

And if we do sell, how will the proceeds be used? And who will decide how the proceeds are used? The investment geniuses in Washington, DC? You mean the same folks who talk about (well, used to talk about) “lockboxes” for Social Security? And buying banks and automakers?

Oh, just make sure we pay real estate commissions on all those land sales. Because all the poor real estate agents and brokers are really hurting right now. Did this idea come from the “National Association of Realtors (R)” ?

Ai yi yi

Organic George November 13, 2008 at 8:57 am

Shock Doctrine anyone?

Jason November 13, 2008 at 8:57 am

It looks like Texas because all the red squares are really just shrunken images of the state’s themselves, not representative of federal land.

Anonymous November 13, 2008 at 9:18 am

Perhaps this idea should be tried out as a pilot project first, on the prairie grasslands within the city limits of Detroit.

Hal O'Brien November 13, 2008 at 9:43 am

So your response to a real estate market glutted with supply is… to dramatically increase the supply still more?

Outstanding. I guess that’s one way to make real estate worthless “affordable.”

Superheater November 13, 2008 at 9:50 am

The populace must be “encouraged” to remain in major metropolitan areas, so they don’t develop
the habits of independence and self-reliance. That just doesn’t serve the chattering classes interests.

MM November 13, 2008 at 9:59 am

Yeah, Russia, Venezuela and the like are just rolling in dough now.

David November 13, 2008 at 10:15 am

This suggestion reminds me of way back in 2000 when gold was around $270/oz. and the world’s central banks were selling off their reserves because “inflation is no longer a threat.”

Kieffer November 13, 2008 at 10:40 am

Why not parcel it out and give it away with the requirement that the owner develop it, and live on it for at least 5 years?

Anonymous November 13, 2008 at 11:08 am

The gov should borrow $$$ (sell more bonds), give the proceeds to the banks, and then the banks can buy & own the land

John Dewey November 13, 2008 at 11:19 am

“I’ll agree to sell them back if we can scrap the electoral college system.”

Of course you know that will never happen. The constitutional amendment to replace the electoral college would have to be ratified by 3/4 of the states. Small states will always band together to withstand such a loss of their disproportionate electoral power.

Anonymous November 13, 2008 at 11:21 am

The gov should borrow $$$ (sell more bonds), give the proceeds to the banks, and then the banks can buy & own the land

Now we’re talkin’

Pete Geddes November 13, 2008 at 11:54 am

Alex:

We’ve been here before (see Sagebrush Rebels). I can think of few policy proposals as unpopular with westerners than one to divest the federal public lands.

JordanT November 13, 2008 at 12:04 pm

Considering that housing in California, Nevada, and Arizona is still at ahistorically high levels of unaffordability, perhaps it still needs to be done now.

I don’t see how selling federal land in the middle of nowhere in California is going to help housing prices in the Bay Area, LA or SD.

Alan Vanneman November 13, 2008 at 12:39 pm

A lot of federal land is essentially worthless–incredibly remote, arid, hot/cold, etc. A lot of federal land is leased to ranchers at below-market rates. They don’t want to have to buy the land, because they’d have to maintain it and pay taxes as well. Yes, we could sell Yellowstone to a private concern, but that might be controversial.

like.lib November 13, 2008 at 12:56 pm

Much of the West, as you may know, used to be called The Great American Desert. This is especially true for the northern plains and the basin and range, less so for the watersheds closer to the coast.

What that means, of course, is that water is scarce. It’s hard to farm. For ex-urbanites, you’ve got to drill deep for water — deeper every time you add more neighbors, because the aquifers replenish slowly.

That hasn’t stopped the feds from trying to sell it off to clueless settlers before, trying to help the railroads make a buck. Your idea for a sell-off would feed another ill-conceived landrush (already under way, but slowed by the presence of public lands), this one helping the realtors.

Most previous schemes have left ruined landscapes. Prairie vegetation doesn’t come back quickly once the top soil is plowed under or blown away. That is, development, even if it fails, is hard to undo.

So before you dream up a way to raise money with the lands of the West, even if its for the sake of a quick post and fresher Web site, try moving out to Montana for a while and thinking about the issues as they’re lived by the locals.

James November 13, 2008 at 1:03 pm

Here is a map with a breakdown of the use of federal lands.

http://www.adcre8tr.com/images/map2.jpg

pants November 13, 2008 at 1:06 pm

i think i know who’d buy it…

drill baby drill. there’s a lot of O&G out west.

James November 13, 2008 at 1:21 pm

Federal lands by state:

http://nationalatlas.gov/printable/fedlands.html#list

They do count reservations:

New Mexico

http://nationalatlas.gov/asp/popups.asp?imgFile=../printable/images/preview/fedlands/nm.gif&imgw=588&imgh=450

Arizona

http://nationalatlas.gov/asp/popups.asp?imgFile=../printable/images/preview/fedlands/az.gif&imgw=588&imgh=450

mike November 13, 2008 at 1:44 pm

Much of this is already “sold” as essentially perpetual leaseholds for extractive industries, timber, farming and ranching. I’ve never been able to find a total, but anecdotally it’s huge.

I get a chuckle just thinking about someone in D.C. try to sell a rancher’s leasehold property; if you think al-Qaeda is bad news, just wait until you see the stink something like this would stir up.

babar November 13, 2008 at 2:24 pm

yes, haven’t you heard of the Strategic Land Reserve?

carla November 13, 2008 at 2:50 pm

Ironically, some of that federal land in Utah is home to some of the last wild bison herds in the US.
It is also home to endangered desert big horn sheep, mountain goats, big cats, bear, moose and elk. The majority of the land is harsh desert like this, which looks barren but is home to a diverse collection of animals and plants:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/91694861@N00/2959766920/in/set-72157608211771496/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/91694861@N00/2394150495/in/set-72157604421677441/

There is also quite a bit of alpine and high plateau environment included in Utah’s federal lands.

While I don’t doubt that there is significant ecological value to be had in the Buffalo Commons, I think the solution lies in adding to the US land roster, not in trading one place for another. In the end, our most limited resource isn’t fossil fuel, it is space – something many other places are already out of.

Eric H November 13, 2008 at 4:00 pm

You could sell conservation easements separately from the land.

DanC November 13, 2008 at 4:17 pm

George Soros and Obama backers should just buy the states that vote against them and fill them with ACORN recruits

nathan November 13, 2008 at 4:33 pm

Alex has obviously not been to many of these lands. They are either far too special to sell or far to worthless. A sale would get us a one time infusion of a few billion bucks that would quickly go down the black hole, and we would have lost the legacy of public lands for future generations. Not a good deal. But you libertarian economists, you keep churning out the ideas!

Lord November 13, 2008 at 5:48 pm

It would be hard finding enough fools that want to buy it, but apparently eastern economists would be a good place to start.

Anonymous November 13, 2008 at 6:03 pm

Yeah, we should sell it to the Chinese and in 50 years, they can call it their Louisiana Purchase.

Or the Great Rice Bowl.

babar November 13, 2008 at 8:11 pm

Can someone figure out how to make the map change automatically? I just looked at it now and it looks the same as it did earlier today, even with all the changes that have happened since then.

Zebulon Pike November 13, 2008 at 9:40 pm

For persons to whom this is news, I strongly recommend you throw a tent and sleeping bag in the car and head west. Much of this land is BLM and it is perfectly legal and very enjoyable to go down a dirt rode and pitch a tent on YOUR land and spend the night below the stars in the great wide open.

Now sing along:
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me

Buck November 13, 2008 at 11:54 pm

Asking them to sell that land is like asking the law makers not the president what are they going to do with the 700 Billion?

gecko November 14, 2008 at 4:03 am

Why mess around with just buffalo? Bring back the elephants, lions, and camels too! Now that would be fun:

http://www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20070830/news_lz1c30wild.html

Indiana Norm November 14, 2008 at 9:15 am

Prior to 1860, import tariffs were the largest source of federal government revenue in every year except in 1836. In the latter year, revenue from LAND SALES was the leading source of revenue.

Vito November 14, 2008 at 11:58 am

I’ll give you 25 CENTS for Nevada. Bidding war.

Anonymous November 14, 2008 at 12:39 pm

I’ll give you 25 CENTS for Nevada.

I’ll see you 25 cents and raise you $1.

mick November 14, 2008 at 2:40 pm

Yes, remember that the west is in the midst of a terrible drought. Read today’s news…fighting the wildfires has caused a water shortages and people have to cut back in usage.
All of the west is getting drier and drier…large lakes are about to dry up, they are hundreds if not thousands of gallons lower every year and may soon not be able to supply the necessary drinking water for the people already living there.
If the land is sold is there any guarantee that it will be resposibly administered and it won’t end up in another Dust Bowl? And if it does, and all of the West becomes desert, then where will all the increase in residents in the future live?
Whether you believes in Global Warming or not, look at it as a gamble: If it isn’t true and we use the land and resources responsibly the planet will be better off for our grandchildren (less pollution, more water, more aable land, more efficient use of resources, less poverty, etc). If it is true and we handle it responsibly, there may still be a planet for our grandchildren! And if the money, and government debt is our guiding factors then its not the responsible use of the land and preserving it for the future generations of Americans.

Leah November 14, 2008 at 4:31 pm

This is the dumbest post I’ve ever read on MR!

bob m November 14, 2008 at 5:34 pm

First of all, a lot of that federal land is National Parks and officially designated Wilderness Areas, National Recreation Areas, etc., spectacular landscape that is our collective heritage. In addition, much of it in National Forests or BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land is equally unique, beautiful and unspoiled – from millions of acres in Southern Utah’s red-rock canyon country to ancient, old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. These latter lands are less protected, and people have been battling for decades to preserve the most beautiful and unspoiled parts instead of leasing them for short-term extractive resources such as oil, gas and timber – while still allowing hiking, camping, fishing and hunting. Logging, drilling and mining are already allowed on the vast majority of federal public lands. But the Bush administration has tried to open up many outstanding areas of natural beauty to the highest bidder – and in fact is angling to do much of that in its waning days through executive orders and last-minute rule changes. For example, this includes selling oil and gas leases on the borders of breathtaking Arches National Park in Utah and building thousands of miles of logging roads and cutting down huge tracts of old-growth forests in Oregon. Economically, none of that logging or drilling in the most sensitive or beautiful areas would add more than a momentary blip in terms of jobs or energy independence – yet the land would be spoiled forever. The proposal to actually sell the land is just as short-sighted – at best creating expensive getaways for the rich instead of land available for all Americans to enjoy recreationally, at worst just adding to sprawl and ravaging our best backcountry for a quick profit for few extractive industries (many of them foreign-owned). Is that what we’ve come to, selling off America the Beautiful?

Andre Kenji November 16, 2008 at 8:56 pm

Politically that impossible. That´s one of the reasons for Brian Scheitzer victory in Montana in 2004.

Barry November 17, 2008 at 10:55 am

“It is time for a sale.”

Yes, because the prime time to sell assets is when they’d bring a very low price.

Pull the other one, please.

Brian November 28, 2008 at 2:09 am

As another poster mentioned, most of the federally-owned land in these states is protected wilderness. The Bush administration has, in fact, been trying for years to sell some of this land and/or remove its protected status, and they usually try to do so in the form of giveaways to politically-connected corporations that wish to exploit the land and, often, cause irreparable environmental harm.

Out here in Idaho we are constantly fighting with various interests who wish to encroach on some of the last unspoiled land on the continent. Please do not encourage them.

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tiffany July 21, 2010 at 11:26 pm

A lot of federal land is essentially worthless–incredibly remote, arid, hot/cold, etc. A lot of federal land is leased to ranchers at below-market rates. They don’t want to have to buy the land, because they’d have to maintain it and pay taxes as well. Yes, we could sell Yellowstone to a private concern, but that might be controversial.

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