When should the federal government own land?

by on January 9, 2017 at 5:35 am in Current Affairs, Economics, Law, Uncategorized | Permalink

Public land would be interesting.

That was a request for topic coverage from Ryan, from last night.  Here is a 2014 CRS survey piece with good background information.

I can think of a few reasons for federal government ownership of public land:

1. For some specific purpose, such as a national park or a nuclear weapons facility or the White House.

1b. There is a conservation argument for land holdings, but again I think it has to be for a specific purpose, thus collapsing into #1 proper.

2. As a revenue-maximizing strategy, a’la Irvine Company, so the government can sell off pieces of land successively, over time, to take in more revenue than if it sold off everything all at once.

3. To hold land off the market and thus force more people to squeeze into cities, thereby reaping extra returns to scale and density, shades of Edward Gibbon Wakefield.

4. To limit rent-seeking games, since much of the land might be low value in the present, but a race to homestead it would consume resources.  In the longer run, that homesteading race would lead to suboptimal owners, since we don’t now know exactly what the land will be good for.

5. It’s the only way we can run an asset surplus, since cash would be grabbed by the political process and redistributed.  Think of it as akin to those poorer villages where you save in the form of cows or pigs, because your uncle cannot come to you when he needs to fund a wedding and demand a piece of the pig.

I say #1 is unproblematic and can be decided on a case-by-case basis.  #2 is fine if the government were doing that, but they’re not.  #3 would seem to require much more federal ownership of land than what we have.  It’s still much, much cheaper to live in Idaho.  #4 is an OK argument, but I don’t see why it would apply to properly done land auctions, which is indeed how federal disposal of the land has evolved.

So #5 is actually the main argument, at least once we get past #1.

Overall, I don’t see why the federal government needs to own about 28% of the country.  Nonetheless, in the meantime the government does allow grazing and mining to take place on those lands, often at below-market rents.  (By the way, for now I am putting on hold a possible #6: “federal land ownership is the most efficient way to regulate mining and fossil fuel extraction.”  It raises issues far beyond the scope of the current discussion, though it is significant.)

You will note that the federal government owns 47% of the land in “the West,” but only 4% of the land east of the Mississippi.  Unfortunately:

Congress in 1976 passed a law declaring that “the remaining public domain lands generally would remain in federal ownership.”

Though note a few days ago the House acted to ease land giveaways, so this may be changing.  Yet I feel no great thrill at simply giving this land to the state governments, though that may be an intermediate step toward privatization.

I would prefer to lower the percentage of federal land ownership in the West, but in the meantime I don’t see this as an incredibly pressing issue.  The government can either waste some of your land or some of your money, take your pick.  I do think the gdps of Nevada and Idaho could be higher, just not by that much.  Alaska may be a story of its own.

map_of_all_u-s-_federal_land

1 Thiago Ribeiro January 9, 2017 at 6:01 am

I already knew How the West Was Won – and it was not by being nice – , and now I know by whom.

2 dearieme January 9, 2017 at 6:24 am

What does the Holy Constitution have to say about Federal landholding?

3 prior_test2 January 9, 2017 at 8:58 am

That the District of Columbia is owned by the federal government (and which is why it is still in the end administered by Congress).

Further, military bases are distinctly federal property – something that predates the holy constitution.

Finally, national parks aren’t mentioned in the constitution at all. Strange as it might seem, the U.S. has not found that written document so limiting as to be unable to continue to do innovative things – such as national parks.

4 mulp January 9, 2017 at 11:08 am

But parks and forests and other public resources are dealt with extensively in The Supreme Law of the Land which the Constitution incorporates into itself in article five.

When did We the People decide to stop teaching civics? Was teaching the Constitution determined secretly to be liberal indoctrination and secretly quashed in the 80s?

I just find it odd that conservatives these days call the Constitution unconstitutional, explicitly or implicitly.

The first enumerated power of Congress is first because it addresses the number one problem Gen Washington and Congress had before the Constitution was written. Once they got started, they successfully argued for and got lots of power for Congress and all We the People collectively.

5 Floccina January 9, 2017 at 11:58 am

I can be emended anyway.

6 GoneWithTheWind January 9, 2017 at 10:02 am

What does the constitution say about my right to own and carry a gun anywhere? About abortion,

The question is can land be held for the public or must it all be sold off or given to private interests. If we can hold land for the public and call it a national park even though the constitution does not allow it can we not hold land for the public and call it BLM land? If not why not. If the land is sold off or given to the states you can be guaranteed that special interests and the rich will scoop it up and the public be damned. Ted Turner owns 2 million acres of land if the great land grab goes forward a hundred other billionaires will also own 2 million acres and how will that be better for you and me? Keep the land in the public hands. I would suggest that given this threat that ALL existing publicly owned lands be renamed and a national monument to protect it from the greedy land grabbers.

7 mulp January 9, 2017 at 11:20 am

Those opposed to Federal land holdings are even more opposed to Ted Turner owning land because he is a radical leftist environmentalist replacing cattle with bison, which happen to have a market price twice as high as cattle in large part because they get no government subsidies like cattle do.

Ted Turner is their prime example of greedy environmentalist in it only to get rich. You must pay a high price for his bison steaks. You must pay extremely high prices to go on his land and even more to hunt.

Westerners want the land held privately and then taxed heavily to bankrupt the landowner! It’s outrageous that the federal government let’s the public, mostly westerners, use the land for free or for fees far below what property taxes would be, and then taxes easterners in NYC to fight fires and other expensive stewardship on those lands.

8 wct January 9, 2017 at 10:30 am

=

Article IV of the US Constitution has a “Property Clause”:

“The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.”

So the federal government can constitutionally own territories & other property — BUT not within the formal boundaries of existing states.

Remember that the US Constitution was/is a limited cooperative pact among sovereign states.

Once a Federal territory becomes a state, the federal government MUST surrender all claims to the land… to the speciific state government. Thus, all the vast Federal land holdings in Nevada, Utah, Idaho, etc. are unconstitutional & illegal.

Of course, the Constitution is rarely a major obstacle to ambitious Federal politicians. The vast spread of current federal lands stems from many political, historical, and geographic circumstances… and US Supreme Court rulings that constantly favored expansive Federal land ownership.

9 mulp January 9, 2017 at 11:43 am

What is “other properties”?

Iraq? Cuba?

Are you arguing all the Federal building and offices outside DC are unconstitutional?

All the government holding including military bases prior to Congress creating DC were unconstitutional?

It seems to me, “other properties” means all land and building anywhere owned by the United States no matter where.

The reason the Federal government stopped giving away land was that doing so cost government so much in welfare for those who could not live on the land. Land grants were originally 160 acres, but in the west they said 160 acres was far to small.

If you ask Ted Turner, he would probably say his two million acres are too small to accomplish his goal of making bison a major food source that supports his land holdings. And that is in the context when bison numbered ten times greater than cattle when cattle were now being shipped to market on government built railroads (640 acres of free land for every mile of rail) after being raised for free on government public land for private profit.

Do you think those ranchers paying grazing fees want to own the land and pay property taxes which would certainly cost more.

10 wct January 9, 2017 at 12:14 pm

…the Federal Government got the District of Columbia to perform its functions.
The sovereign states already had everything else within the formal United States.

Individual states were free to manage any ‘public lands’ within their border as they saw fit as sovereign entities. States could also grant/lease property to the Federal Government (e.g., military bases) while retaining primary ownership rights.

Like most Americans, you lack understanding of how a federation of sovereign states was supposed to operate under the “United States” Constitution/pact.

11 edgar January 9, 2017 at 11:55 am

Art I sec 8 Cl. 17 also includes the “Enclave Clause”:
:
“To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever,
over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as
may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance
of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the
United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places
purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in
which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Maga-
zines, Arsenals, dock-Yards and other needful Buildings;”

However, if I understand correctly, the Supreme Court in Kohl v. United States saw fit to invest the federal government with unilateral eminent domain powers, thereby judicially voiding the “purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be” limitation. Seems to give the impression that In the US at least, “constitutional law” and “the rule of law” are two separate things.

12 Axa January 9, 2017 at 6:41 am

The Sacramento and San Joaquin river valleys and High Plains/Ogallala aquifer are not in federal land. The government own the land but citizens, or water funds, own the water.

AZ, NM, CO, NV, UT, ID, CA, OR and WY , the red areas on the map, are not precisely water rich. Idaho and Wyoming worry about the effect of future water scarcity on development. California already knows what is to live with scarcity. Journalists nailed this time to describe what happen in Colorado: http://www.denverpost.com/2016/07/17/when-water-is-more-expensive-than-land/

Thus, what’s the point of having more land in the market if there’s no water to put that land to work? What would be accomplished?

13 Axa January 9, 2017 at 7:50 am

Ps. the CRS report mentions water but it does not quantify the service value ($$$) of national forests. “Forest reserves—later renamed national forests—were originally authorized to protect the lands, preserve water flows, and provide timber. These purposes were expanded in the Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act of 1960”

A century ago environmental conservation was not part of the popular culture. It made sense to use the president’s power to protect the environment and the services it provides. Education happened and today conservation is mainstream. On 2017 politics, it would made sense to transfer those lands to state/county governments, or even individuals, but they have to agree to keep using the land in a sustainable way.

14 anon January 9, 2017 at 8:12 am

If you need to preserve a watershed, I don’t see the point of a sale, only to enforce sustainability on owners.

15 Cliff January 9, 2017 at 9:31 am

Forestry is sustainable now anyway so what would be the point? And you think all possible uses for land require large amounts of water? Clearly that is not the case, look at what they are used for now- grazing, mining, forestry, etc.

16 anon January 9, 2017 at 10:07 am

Sustainable in a narrow sense. Everything going to fast growing “white wood,” hardwood disappearing over time.

17 peri January 9, 2017 at 4:10 pm

+1

18 mulp January 9, 2017 at 12:11 pm

So, if forest are sustainable, why have forest products companies dumps two million acres of forest in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont?

The number 1 US landowner got to number 1 buying forest for cheap in New England. It’s not clear he has a strategy to make the land sustainable, in contrast with number 2 Ted Turner focusing on sales of food like bison once bison reach a million head. Note the prime export of New England for centuries was timber, especially 100 foot straight pieces for ship masts and boat beams. By 1900, the region was 95% clear cut. Since then, abandoned farms reverted to stands of trees and now trees of 80 feet are common in residential areas. But most of the land maintained for forest products in private land isn’t even close.

No private enterprise has managed forests sustainable to my knowledge. Robin Hood is myth based on opposition to jack boot government protecting forests to supply forest products for the Navy. Those masts for tall ships requiring 120 years plus to grow. In the US, after hundreds of years cutting virgin forest, not being able to cut the 1% remaining old growth killed the bulk of US logging in the West. Hundreds of years after virgin forests were cut, that timber was not replaced on private or public land. Instead trees are cut at 40 to 60 years when they are not worth much.

19 anon January 9, 2017 at 8:10 am

This was one of my thoughts as well, the map is largely of land unsuitable for “homesteading.”

I am somewhat split on what to do with this marginal land. Much is pretty, so we could just call it a national park. On the other hand, some serviceable ranch land could be auctioned.

I don’t think long term leasees, like the Bundies, have a real claim, but that is one terrible way the Trump administration could lean. Gifts to lawbreakers.

20 mulp January 9, 2017 at 12:43 pm

And then in private hands, the local governments could tax the land more than the grazing fees, and charge the property taxes all the time, even when drought makes the land barren and unable to support grazing cattle. After all, once in private hands, the local government will not have total responsibility for protecting developments from wildfires and other problems, not the Federal government, so taxes on the local land will need to be high enough to cover all the Federal payments and replace the Federal services paid for with taxes on the coastal elites.

21 chuck martel January 9, 2017 at 8:33 am

“Thus, what’s the point of having more land in the market if there’s no water to put that land to work? What would be accomplished?”

Why would the land have to be “put to work”? Why does anything have to be “accomplished”, whatever that means?

22 Pshrnk January 9, 2017 at 9:27 am

+1

23 Axa January 9, 2017 at 12:01 pm

Check the last paragraph from Tyler, he mentions GDPs of states.

24 slightlylesshairyape January 9, 2017 at 10:23 am

There are uses for the land that aren’t water intensive, such as mineral extraction.

I think the point anyway is that if the land is not useful due to lack of water, that will be priced into a rational buyer’s valuation.

25 carlospln January 9, 2017 at 4:08 pm

I believe you will discover that ‘mineral extraction’ in fact requires water-lots of it.

26 Roy LC January 9, 2017 at 12:16 pm

The wet parts of Idaho are disproportionately in Federal hands. And despite heavy use of irrigation in the southern portions of the state very little of their outflow stays in Idaho.

In Nevada and Wyoming a big difference exists between BLM land in the drier valleys which is mostly open to economic use and Forest Service land in the wetter mountains in which development is ever more limited.

27 MichaelG January 9, 2017 at 7:23 am

Some people think we’re going to colonize Mars, but they have no interest in colonizing Nevada first. Despite the fact it’s much easier to get to, has a milder climate and more water.

28 anon January 9, 2017 at 8:05 am

+1

29 Boonton January 9, 2017 at 8:43 am

Most of us suspect Martians already beat us to colonizing Nevada.

30 The Original Other Jim January 9, 2017 at 9:28 am

Well, Al Gore has assured us that due to things like your light bulb choices, Nevada is going to become a desert within 5 years.

Massive rockets to Mars are the way to go, environmentally.

31 Hazel Meade January 9, 2017 at 10:17 am

Lots of people would like to colonize Nevada, but the federal government won’t let them.
Have you ever tried buying landing in Nevada from the federal government?

32 Boonton January 9, 2017 at 1:19 pm

There are no real estate agents in Nevada? Zillow has not a single plot of land for sale?

33 Daniel Weber January 9, 2017 at 11:11 am

I don’t want to colonize Nevada. I want to colonize Mars.

34 me January 9, 2017 at 2:24 pm

I’m not an advocate of colonizing Mars, but it seems like you’re intentionally being a bit obtuse here. The argument for colonizing Mars isn’t that it’s easier to colonize than Nevada. It’s that catastrophic events on Mars are less correlated with catastrophic events in populous parts of earth.

35 MichaelG January 9, 2017 at 2:44 pm

The assumption is that the colony on Mars is self-sufficient and can survive cut off from supplies from Earth. That’s not realistic. Think of all the gear in The Martian. To build all of that locally, you need all of industrial civilization, from mines to chemicals to chip fab plants. Minimum population to support all of that industry would be in the tens of millions.

A few dozen, or even hundreds, of people in habitats on Mars is not some kind of insurance for the human race. It’s just a group that’s going to slowly starve to death as equipment breaks down and cannot be replaced.

36 Boonton January 9, 2017 at 5:00 pm

You’re thinking short game rather than long game. By short I mean 100 years or less.

37 chuck martel January 9, 2017 at 7:32 am

Ultimately, the federal government owns all the land between its borders and more. It lets you occupy a portion of it subject to its whims in consideration of monetary exchange. However, land ownership by an individual or a greater entity is a construct. The earth has been around a long time and will be around a lot longer than any individual, family, government or society. Any kind of ownership of real property is a temporary matter of convenience subject to change in a moment. At some point the BLM will no longer have anything to manage.

38 Andrew M January 9, 2017 at 8:55 am

I momentarily forgot that BLM here stands for Bureau of Land Management, not Black Lives Matter.

39 The Original Other Jim January 9, 2017 at 9:29 am

You need to get out more. A whole lot more.

40 NatashaRostova January 9, 2017 at 10:04 am

Do you tend to talk about the bureau of land management when you go out?

41 Roy LC January 9, 2017 at 12:20 pm

Go west young man!

42 Brian January 9, 2017 at 2:32 pm

In the western states? We’re still confused what the BLM has been doing holding rallies in big cities in the East. They don’t even manage any land around there.

43 prior_test2 January 9, 2017 at 9:00 am

‘Ultimately, the federal government owns all the land between its borders and more.’

Yep.

44 Cliff January 9, 2017 at 9:33 am

Nope.

45 mavery January 9, 2017 at 8:28 am

If the Federal government owns 28% of land, what proportion of those holdings would fall within the least desirable 28% of the country’s land? Certainly more than half. Probably closer to nearly all of it. The red you see is largely desert with some planes plus Alaskan wilderness thrown in. What’s the optimal use for this land were it not Federally owned? Grazing? Mineral extraction? What’s the marginal decrease in US beef production due to Federal ownership of land?

And (1) has becoming increasingly important as our strike aircraft need larger and larger ranges to both demonstrate their capabilities privately and train against threats with increasingly large footprints. You can’t have an F-35 buzzing Homesteader Jane’s new house, so you need a large, mostly-contiguous body of land to operate in.

46 Hazel Meade January 9, 2017 at 11:25 am

You’re correct that most of the land is undesired wasteland. Still, in places like Nevada, where there is little enough desirable land, if the feds are sitting on ANY of it, it’s a major problem for locals who want to use it.
The major conflicts in these places is because the federal government either won’t let the locals buy or use federal lands that are desirable, or is managing it in a way that harms local interests.

For example in the Oregon standoff case, this happened because the family owned a ranch that butted into a wildlife refuge. There are some indications that the government was trying to force him out to expand the refuge, which raises the question of why the federal government is buying MORE land in Oregon, rather than trying to sell it. Secondly, the ranchers were charged with arson due to controlled burns they were doing to prevent wildfires on their property, because the federal government wasn’t managing the refuge in a way that minimized the risk of wildfire – at least not to the satisfaction of the neighboring ranch.

So you can see that even if MOST of the land undesirable wasteland, there are still lots of cases where owning good land or managing a swamp can be a problem for people who want to use that land.

47 Abersouth January 9, 2017 at 11:37 am

+1

48 Troll me January 9, 2017 at 12:41 pm

The ranchers who did the controlled burns (how controlled is a different question) seem very respectable. It’s not fair for them, but that’s how it works sometimes when you need a deterrent.

49 Hazel Meade January 9, 2017 at 1:19 pm

One of the burns got out of control an burned an acre of federal land (a whole acre!!!)
The other one was deliberately started on federal land during a wildfire in another part of the refuge to try to prevent it from spreading ot the ranch.

The point is that these guys weren’t malicious. They were trying to protect their land. This is just an example of how federal land use and land management policies conflict with the interests of local people who actually live near that land. The policy of the federal government regarding controlled burns puts the neighboring landowners at risk.

50 RW Force January 9, 2017 at 7:10 pm

Not exactly. One fire was set to cover up illegal poaching of deer. The second endangered BLM firefighters. They agreed to the sentences in a plea bargain. They specifically rejected the actions of the Malheur occupiers on their behalf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hammond_arson_case#Fires_for_which_the_Hammonds_were_convicted

51 Hazel Meade January 10, 2017 at 11:01 am

My point is that in some ways the government’s land use conflicts with the interests of local residents. Whatever these guys did, legal or illegal, it’s an example of how the federal government’s land ownership can harm or conflict with local use.

52 chuck martel January 9, 2017 at 12:49 pm

“You’re correct that most of the land is undesired wasteland.”

If it was an undesired wasteland why was it necessary to kill and incarcerate the native Americans that lived on it in order to possess it?

53 Hazel Meade January 9, 2017 at 1:21 pm

Really a valid point in my opinion. I would have nothing against the BLM returning millions of acres of “wasteland” to Native American tribal ownership.

54 Art Deco January 9, 2017 at 2:30 pm

I would. There isn’t a large mass of human capital on the Rez. They wouldn’t know what to do with it.

Amerindians would benefit from better schooling and vocational training in particular. Proximate community colleges which make Amerindians a niche clientele have been known to do good work. Given that 98% of the population is not working in agriculture, fishing, or forestry, the training programs in these schools will indubitably be dominated by occupations which are not land intensive.

(While we’re at it, the current iteration of tribes acquired it in the first place by expelling the previous iteration).

55 Hazel Meade January 9, 2017 at 2:40 pm

There isn’t a large mass of human capital anywhere in rural America. All the rural white folks are poor and addicted to opiods, or so I am told by all those commenters belaboring the plight of the rural white male. I bet they would benefit from better schooling and vocational training, just like Natives.

56 Art Deco January 9, 2017 at 4:06 pm

Hazel, you’re abysmally ignorant of life in small towns and rural zones. Places which are outside metropolitan commuter belts do have lower incomes and less sophisticated occupational strata, but they’re only about 23% off the norm within the belts. If you’re talking the exurban populations within the commuter belts, they’re closer to the mean and commuting. The human capital is ample. Eight states have employment-to-population ratios a standard deviation or more below the mean and 12 have such ratios a standard deviation or more above the mean. About 1/2 of each set are abnormally rural states.

You’re talking about expecting Amerindian populations with what are sorely depressed skill sets taking on agricultural enterprise as a matter of routine. Where I’ve lived, there are likely more former dairy farmers than extant dairy farmers. People who’d done such all their lives eventually have to sell their cows and go into other employments because the profit margins do not allow them any mistakes. So, you’re going to expect a six digit population of tertiary sector workers with high levels of disability to make a go of it in ranching?

57 Hazel Meade January 9, 2017 at 5:48 pm

No, I’m not.

Personally, I don’t think that whether the land is put to “productive” use is relevant or not. It’s really not the government’s job to give land to people they think will be the most “productive” with it. Nevermind that I specified “wasteland”, which presumably indicates low possibility of productive agricultural use. I’m thinking of large tracts of BLM land that are not designated national parks or wildlife preserves, and aren’t being used for any agricultural purpose. The sort of things that mavery was referring to as the “least desirable 28%”. I see no particular harm in returning tracts of unused BLM land to Native tribes to do whatever they want with. Ranchers can pay grazing fees to Native Americans just as well as federal officials, and it would probably be better if the money went straight to them anyway. Or the Natives can try to learn how to graze cows. Whichever.

58 Art Deco January 9, 2017 at 6:02 pm

How is this responsive, Hazel?

He wants to deed over large swaths of land to the Indian remnant because that’s his shtick. That’s just lousy policy, which auctioning the land after preparatory measures have taken is not. Your denunciations of ordinary rural people are bitchy and ill-informed.

59 peri January 9, 2017 at 7:39 pm

A small point of interest: what the Indians wanted to do with the BLM’s Bears Ears area, was get it protected as a national monument. Which Obama just did.

60 Hazel Meade January 10, 2017 at 11:07 am

I don’t see doing something that would be just to the descendants of people we took the land from as lousy policy. And I’m not denouncing rural people, just pointing out that many of the same problems afflict rural white populations that people commonly attribute to Natives living on reservations. Rural areas are poor for a lot of the same reasons everywhere. Middle-class exurbs within commuter belts don’t count. And the recent focus on the problems of rural working class white guys is, well, odd, considering that rural poor native men with the same problems have been ignored for decades. Guess nobody cares until a white person is affected.

61 Roy LC January 9, 2017 at 12:23 pm

Much of New England would be classified as wasteland by your measure if the area had been settled as late as the Northwest.

62 Art Deco January 9, 2017 at 4:39 pm

The red you see is largely desert with some planes plus Alaskan wilderness thrown in.

There’s a good deal of desert, but much else. Alaska is largely boreal forest; its only in the most northerly part you have tundra. The bulk of Idaho and Colorado (as well as northern New Mexico) is montane forest. Eastern Montana is steppe, as are the eastern reaches of New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. The arid zone consists of eastern Oregon, southernmost Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, an unpopulated slice of southern California west of San Diego and Victorville, and the southwesterly slice of New Mexico.

63 Regular guy January 9, 2017 at 8:40 am

The current debate (and day 1 Republican rule change) is wether or not the federal government can GIVE it to the states, not sell it. As public land owners we would lose the permanent resource, the rents, the recreation, and gain absolutely nothing.
It’s a pretty obvious corruption scheme. Tyler should have done at least cursery research into the current debate.

64 anon January 9, 2017 at 8:58 am

That plays into the underrated Bundy populism. Malheur was underrated. The exoneration was very much underrated. And yes, giving land to the states would produce land grabs over environmental protection.

The idea Is that the Federal government should not have bird sanctuaries, they should be given to ranchers.

65 Regular Guy January 9, 2017 at 9:26 am

The Bundy’s hadn’t paid their grazing fees since the 90s. The only thing interesting about the whole debacle is that they got away with being free loaders for so long.

66 anon January 9, 2017 at 10:02 am

Trump’s potential Interior nominee is a Bundy fan.

In an interview with the outdoor magazine Field & Stream, then-candidate Trump was asked about the movement to hand over federal lands to the states. He replied, “I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do. I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble? And I don’t think it’s something that should be sold.”

But two of Trump’s potential candidates for secretary of Interior, GOP Reps. Rob Bishop (Utah) and Cynthia Lummis (Wyo.), have been among Congress’s most extreme boosters of getting rid of federal public lands.

Both are members of a new congressional caucus called the Federal Land Action Group (FLAG), which asserted in its initial press release that “The federal government has been a lousy landlord for western states and we simply think the states can do it better” and directing the group to develop “congressional action needed to return these lands back to the rightful owners.”

The “rightful owners” being not-the-indians.

67 Regular guy January 9, 2017 at 10:36 am

That’s not accurate, he chose Zinke from Montana as sec of interior. Zinke said he would “not tolerate selling our public lands.”

68 anon January 9, 2017 at 10:46 am

Oh, I missed that change.

69 Regular Guy January 9, 2017 at 9:25 am

Furthermore, there has been a growth in federal land not a reduction.
Some of this came from Pittman-Robertson money, some of it came from Dingle-Johnson money.
The NWR’s are expanded annually with funds raised from conservation stamps.
Conservation groups such as Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation buy land and GIVE it to the federal government to steward. Ducks Unlimited, NWTF, etc all do this every single year.

What you are suggesting is that you would betray and break all of these agreements without even knowing the reasons or history behind how we got here.

70 Cliff January 9, 2017 at 9:36 am

Get with the times. This is always the case for anything the federal government does. A new administration comes in and everything is completely reversed. What about amnesty? That was granted in exchange for securing the border, but the feds “betrayed and broke all their agreements” and that never happened.

71 Troll me January 9, 2017 at 12:52 pm

There’s a difference between failing to provide sufficient resources for 100% enforcement of a policy, and giving away something that was gifted to you for a purpose explicitly against the reason it was given to you. The people who did the giving might think of it along the lines of the treachery of giving some magical device to a good guy to take care of, and then him giving it to Volodmor – he would then be deemed as treacherous both with regard to the original intent and especially for the fact of it coming into the hands of Volodmor.

Think of it in a different context. Imagine that some wealthy individual dies and leaves behind the property for a public park. And then the city were to sell that public park to raise funds. Wrong, no?

72 peri January 9, 2017 at 3:02 pm

Thank you, Regular Guy.

And you’re too modest. You’re not all that regular, on the internet.

73 BenK January 9, 2017 at 9:09 am

I don’t see any particular reason why the federal gov’t should hold any lands beside DC; state gov’ts could hold the remainder. If there is a need for federal military bases to be removed from the states, that would make them more stable, for better or for worse. BRAC would be a real puzzle if the lands couldn’t be effectively sold. If this had been the norm, we would have more northeastern and urban/suburban military bases, for example. National parks don’t need to be outright ownership anyway. They can be easements, for example.

Real estate law is quite complex and I hardly know much of it; but I have a feeling that these arguments get more, not less, complicated when real estate lawyers have a whack at it.

74 Patrick January 9, 2017 at 9:21 am

The actual question, if you can bring yourself to face it, is when is it better for the government to own land than to give it away or sell it using the processes they’re likely to utilize in the real world for deciding who gets it and at what price.

75 Cliff January 9, 2017 at 9:37 am

Right- which is what the post addressed

76 Just Saying January 9, 2017 at 9:23 am

Out here in Arizona, I can tell you I love BLM land, because I can shoot on it. Easterners usually have to go to ranges or have rich friends. Here anyone can get in their car and within 30 minutes find public land where they can practice their 2nd amendment rights.

77 chuck martel January 9, 2017 at 9:32 am

The second amendment is about “keeping and bearing”, not shooting. Additionally, it’s about “arms”, not necessarily firearms. In 1789 knives, swords, maces, pikes, spears etc. were part of the arms inventory and their possession not to be infringed either.

78 Cliff January 9, 2017 at 9:38 am

“maces, pikes, spears etc.”

Artistic license?

79 Kevin O'Neill January 9, 2017 at 11:16 am

Not sure about maces, but pikes, spears, and bow and arrows were all used during the revolutionary war. From Journal of the American Revolution

Washington ordered on July 23, 1775 that “the people employed to make spears, are desired by the General to make four dozen of them immediately, thirteen feet in length, and the wood part a good deal more substantial than those already made, particularly in the New Hampshire Lines, are ridiculously short and light, and can answer no sort of purpose, no more are therefore to be made on the same model.”

80 Boonton January 9, 2017 at 9:28 am

It would be interesting if someone could overlay the map with a map of empty space. The east is more dense than the west but my impression is that there’s still a lot of land in the east that is essentially empty. Trees, forests but that’s it.

So here’s the question, if land of a given type is just as likely to be empty in the east as it is in the west, then this isn’t really a very interesting economics question. If tomorrow the Federal gov’t started selling off all its land 99% of it would be sold for $1 to people that will in the end do nothing with it. From space the US would look exactly the same.

Regarding the original list:

1. Conservation, I don’t see why there has to be a ‘specific’ purpose to it. I’m thinking a specific conservation type argument would be something along the lines of “here’s a reservoir that services lots of people, if people built homes and businesses along its shores the runoff would contaminate the drinking water, therefore 1500 feet from the shoreline will be held off limits in order to conserve this resource.

But having large areas of empty land does allow us to preserve some of the remaining large ecosystems. That in itself is valuable so why not?

81 Cyrys January 9, 2017 at 9:31 am

There is a conservation interest not just in small tracts of unique topological interest, but in large tracts for wild flora and fauna.

82 peri January 9, 2017 at 9:56 am

+1000

83 Art Deco January 9, 2017 at 2:25 pm

Plenty of large tracts are held by the National Park Service or the Fish and Wildlife Service. No need to add the BLM or the Forest Service on top.

84 Ryan January 9, 2017 at 5:20 pm

There certainly is a conservation need, Art, and one of the original motives for creating the Forest Service was safeguarding ecosystems. Regardless of who owns them large landscapes are important, especially in more arid regions.

One such example – https://vimeo.com/88619272

85 Art Deco January 9, 2017 at 6:04 pm

The Park Service and the Wildlife Service address concerns re conservation. The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management hold properties which have commercial uses. We have ample wilderness, and unless you induce a bias toward deforestation with property taxes, the woodlands will be maintained as such by private owners bar at the margins.

86 harpersnotes January 9, 2017 at 9:40 am

Homestead Act of Idaho as a possible candidate platform issue for the 2020 Presidential election? (Perhaps structured with training and assists to help inner city young families break the cycle of deep poverty.)

87 Slapman January 9, 2017 at 9:43 am

It also looks like lots of the “federal” land on this map in NM, UT and AZ is actually BIA land which is supposed to be held in trust for the tribes and is not specifically federal land because it is actually “owned” by local native tribes.

88 brad January 9, 2017 at 9:54 am

From a freedom to enjoy the land aspect the federal government is generally more hands off than state government or private enterprise are. If you are in a lightly visited national forest or BLM land there is generally little to no rules about your activities.
It is very rare to be able to disperse camp, fire guns, have an open fire, ride recreation vehicles, etc. anywhere outside of federal land holdings. Most small entities most likely do not want to handle the liability and management of these activities.
The public lands in the West provide a lot of economic activity and they generally need massive scale to have the same draw. Chopping up large tracts into little parcels would take away a lot of the draw that brings people from around the world to see the sights.
This activity would likely decrease growth in the long terms, since only the federal government has the ability to lose money directly on these holding, while the system as a whole is more productive.
Selling off federal lands would likely be similar to Chicago’s privatization of parking, where there would be a nice one time revenue boost and then mostly headaches to follow.

89 Hazel Meade January 9, 2017 at 11:40 am

I have no problem with the federal government continuing to hold large tracts as national parks, forests, and monuments.

But I don’t think there’s a conflict at all between that and selling off any *desirable* land. Most people don’t want to build on mountainous surfaces. Most recreational activity is in mountainous areas. The land that desirable from an agricultural standpoint or for housing generally isn’t the same land as the land people want preserved for recreation. And Nevada isn’t densely enough settled for people’s vacation homes to interfere with recreational uses. If all the land was put up for sale, you might see a few areas near Vegas and Reno filled up with vacation homes, but there would still be huge tracts of unoccupied wasteland where people would ride ATVs and fire their guns.

90 Brad January 9, 2017 at 12:25 pm

I think a good example of an open landscape where private ownership is the norm is Far West Texas.
It has lots of scenic land, but it is held privately for the most part and recreational activities are More limited due to that.
Most of the land is private ranches and little economic activity comes from them.
Texas also has ag exemption rules for property like this so the local governments still have the issues with all this empty space providing little revenue.

91 Hazel Meade January 9, 2017 at 1:32 pm

I don’t think tourism is as big as moneymaker as you imply. I have not seen the numbers on it, but I imagine if the ranchers thought they could make more money opening up their land for tourism, they would be doing it. There are also game hunting ranches on private land and such. I love outdoor recreation personally, but I’m honest enough to admit it is essentially being subsidized by the federal government via low park fees and free access to federal land.

92 Art Deco January 9, 2017 at 2:24 pm

It’s dated, but I think some of Steve Hanke’s work ca. 1980 pertains to this. On the Wilderness Society, he had this to say, “Now you’ll notice they completely neglected the capital carrying charges – here about $10 bn. Buys a lotta recreation….”

93 Hazel Meade January 9, 2017 at 10:13 am

#3 is hideous and immoral. The nudge equivalent of mandatory concentration camps.
Lots of people hate living in high-density environments and are will be miserable in them. Forcing more people into cities is the deliberate infliction of misery on human beings. And here I was thinking Tyler was some sort of libertarian. Urbanization should be a natural process and include plenty of suburbs.

Also, any federal land that is not a designated park, or wilderness area, or similar location should be up for sale to whoever wants to pay for it. The federal government shouldn’t be sitting on land it’s not using and refusing to sell it. A lot of the land it owns is wasteland nobody wants but if some hermit wants to buy it and live in a cabin in the woods, let him.

94 peri January 9, 2017 at 10:46 am

The hermits are well provided for. There are plenty of inholdings.

95 Hazel Meade January 9, 2017 at 11:15 am

Recent ones, or holdovers from the 1800s?

96 peri January 9, 2017 at 11:54 am

Is title history important to the hermit?

97 Hazel Meade January 9, 2017 at 1:33 pm

It is if there are an increasing number of hermits and a fixed number of inholdings.

98 peri January 9, 2017 at 2:20 pm

I don’t follow. The supply of everything on earth, not just “hermitages surrounded by relatively-untouched, only occasionally-clearcut, occasionally-pit-mined, occasionally-drowned public land,” is limited – by nature or by man (aka nature). Isn’t that why you’re eventually going to throw rocks at us from the moon?

99 Hazel Meade January 9, 2017 at 2:43 pm

The point is there is a supply of land that the federal government is sitting on, which some people might wants to buy if it were up for sale.

100 peri January 9, 2017 at 2:55 pm

Oh, gotcha. The right to buy, if not to own the thing you thought you were buying.

101 Adam January 9, 2017 at 12:46 pm

Considering that we give massive subsidizes (starting with roads, but going a lot farther) for people to live in the middle of nowhere, I think we can hold off with the concentration camp hyperbole.

102 Hazel Meade January 9, 2017 at 1:37 pm

Tyler’s suggestion is for the federal government to buy up land close to cities to prevent suburban growth thus forcing people to buy significantly smaller homes closer in. Not land in the middle of nowhere. Roads in subdivisions are generally built by the developer near existing highways, so they are not really being subsidized.

103 Art Deco January 9, 2017 at 2:13 pm

The roads are not precisely subsidized, but if road repair is not financed out of tolls or fuel excises, the cost falls on people in their capacity as property owners or consumers or income recipients, rather than in their capacity as motorists. Making use of tolls and fuel excises produces more of an alignment of costs with benefits and changes the calculus some regarding the use of private cars v. mass transit.

104 Adam January 9, 2017 at 3:08 pm

Look, if you can’t admit to yourself that suburban subdivisions are highly subsidized, you should probably stay away from land use discussions.

105 Hazel Meade January 9, 2017 at 3:48 pm

Well, maybe you can explain how they are subsidized. You started off talking about massive subsidies to build roads to “the middle of nowhere”. Suburbs aren’t “the middle of nowhere”.

106 Art Deco January 9, 2017 at 4:13 pm

They’re not subsidized in the social sense unless the roads are being paid for with income, property, or sales tax revenue from core cities or from areas outside commuter belts. Every locale is different, but it’s a reasonable wager you’re not seeing much in the way of transfers to suburban residents from this direction. What’s going on is that commuting costs are not transparent to suburban residents because those costs are not incorporated into the charges assessed for using a motor vehicle. That doesn’t mean the core city resident is paying the costs. It means that property holders are paying the costs or consumers are paying the costs. People who drive less are subsidizing people who drive more, but both parties can readily be residents of the same suburban township.

107 Adam January 10, 2017 at 12:13 pm

Roads are being paid for with income, property, or sales tax revenue from core cities. This is not a controversial statement. It’s a fact.

And that’s leaving aside the externalities.

108 Art Deco January 10, 2017 at 5:35 pm

Roads are being paid for with income, property, or sales tax revenue from core cities. This is not a controversial statement. It’s a fact.

Aye, but core cities incorporate about 22% of the population of the United States and a lower share of the revenue stream. Also, people in core cities do drive cars. You may find some net subsidy in regard to which you can make adjustments, but it’s not likely that large.

109 Troll me January 9, 2017 at 1:01 pm

The USA is already the most over-suburbanized country on the planet, with significant negative effects relating to cost of commuting. Being from the only other place on the planet which shares that sort of “car culture” and “exodus to the suburbs” kind of stuff, I understand that it’s cultural in ways that make it unlikely to change soon in most of the States.

Sometimes limitations on freedom can have system-level effects which in aggregtate make us freer. Are we more free, in sum, with policies which make it easy for people to have 90-120 minute commutes daily as a part of unplanned urbanization processes which make mass transit uneconomical?

I get it though. “Stay. Away. From. My. Car.” Right?

110 Hazel Meade January 9, 2017 at 1:34 pm

If people don’t like 90-120 minute commutes they are free to buy a smaller house in the city. Somehow most people appear to prefer the commute to living in more crowded conditions. Why do you think that is?

111 Adam January 9, 2017 at 3:11 pm

How about we stop socializing the costs of people’s 90-120 commutes before we start describing people’s decisions as “free?”

Also, the notion that “most” Americans live where the have a 90-120 minute commute is laughable.

112 Art Deco January 9, 2017 at 4:16 pm

Again, we’re not doing much of that. There is some, inasmuch as state highways, U.S. Routes, and long-haul Interstates are more salient to people living in exurban, small town, or rural loci. You’re talking about suburbs, and the maintenance costs of these roads are largely borne by local governments (at least in New York).

113 Adam January 10, 2017 at 12:14 pm

Local suburban government are not paying to maintain the roads that connect them to the city or the city streets, the heaviest users of which are suburban commuters (with the possible exception of NYC).

114 Art Deco January 10, 2017 at 5:32 pm

Local suburban government are not paying to maintain the roads that connect them to the city or the city streets, the heaviest users of which are suburban commuters (with the possible exception of NYC).

Where? And which roads? In New York, municipal government is the repository of north of 40% of road maintenance expenditure with the state taking care of a similar share. The state’s largely concerned with state highways, long-haul interstates, and U.S. Routes; it’s the short-haul Interstates which are salient for commuters (and the state does maintain those – but keep in mind that core city residents are not the majority in any state). As for intrametropolitan commutes, the character of them vary from one area to another, but the significance of downtown employment has seen a secular decline. Suburb-to-suburb commuting is now modal.

115 Troll me January 9, 2017 at 4:38 pm

Because you’re American.

116 Hazel Meade January 9, 2017 at 5:34 pm

Well, that’s a non-answer.
Why do Americans like living in relatively low-density environments? If indeed that is even something unique to Americans, and not because there just isn’t as much empty land available in Europe, India, Japan, etc.

117 Art Deco January 9, 2017 at 6:06 pm

About 75% of the population lives in block groups with densities > 1,000 persons per sq mile. NB, small towns are not ‘low density’.

118 Hazel Meade January 10, 2017 at 11:21 am

Do note the word “relatively”. European cities have about twice the population density as America ones.
But the telling factor is that , if they can afford to, most people tend to move from high density places to (relatively) low density ones. Suburbs exist because people like living there. They like having yards and single family homes. They don’t like living in apartments in dense cities. Maybe this says something about what living conditions make human beings happy and unhappy.

119 Art Deco January 9, 2017 at 2:14 pm

If I see you hitch-hiking, i’ll make sure to tell my passenger to get you with the door.

120 Troll me January 9, 2017 at 4:39 pm

Please remind me again why my tourist dollars do not get spent in the USA.

121 Art Deco January 9, 2017 at 4:47 pm

Because we’d have the sense to treat you as you deserve.

122 Boonton January 9, 2017 at 1:56 pm

Concentration camps? Hmmm ok

So what if a multi-billionaire decided to buy up a huge amount of empty land. His purchases are quite strategic. He doesn’t buy a huge amount of land but he buys in such a way that the lots he doesn’t buy are very undesirable, very hard to get basic services too (water/gas/electric hookups, roads etc.). The result is if you don’t want to live in the city but you aren’t willing to be a mountain man type the options become quite expensive.

“Forcing more people into cities is the deliberate infliction of misery on human beings”

No one is forced to live in cities. But market differences in price is not force. I’d probably like to live in Manhattan but it’s more expensive so I don’t. There’s no right that manhattan be forced to equal the cost of living in rural Kentucky.

123 Hazel Meade January 9, 2017 at 2:33 pm

Ok, It’s hyperbolic, but I’m trying to find a good analogy for a deliberately overcrowded place that the government compels you to live.

Tyler’s #3 suggests that the government be that multi-billionare, with the express intent of making it so that people have to live in the city, and in a much smaller apartment due to the high cost of living. There’s a difference between natural market forces making Manhatten expensive, because people WANT to live there, and the government forcing it to be expensive (and cramped) by deliberately denying people the ability to buy land in the suburbs. The multi-millionaire situation is analgous to a kind of extreme inequality, in which there is one fabulously rich person and everyone else is a peasant living in tiny tenements. Is that a society you would enjoy? Neither of those situations would make me happy.

124 Boonton January 10, 2017 at 12:08 pm

Again who is forcing you to live in Las Vegas or Reno? There’s a huge number of suburbs and rural communities all over the US. Just because you want a particular city AND suburbs doesn’t mean it’s available for the price you’re willing to pay or even at any particular price.

Suburbs are not a random natural market function but actually a purposeful policy by gov’t and sustained by gov’t. Suburbs are not allowed to become cities by min. lot sizes, zoning restrictions, limited public transit and highways/roads in their place.

125 Art Deco January 9, 2017 at 2:21 pm

should be up for sale to whoever wants to pay for it.

True. You just have to iron out some impediments:

1. Property taxes induce a bias toward deforestation. Forest land needs to be relieved of them

2. You have residual status tenures, namely the grazing permits which repair to people who own private land adjacent to the Bureau of Land Management holdings. The original recipients have a windfall, while the subsequent owners bought land in which the value of the grazing permit has been priced in. You need to compensate people for the bloody grazing permit. Calculating a shadow price which won’t be endlessly litigated will be a challenge.

3. You would benefit from working out a revision to water rights, which is going to require indemnities paid to current holders. Ideally, the water rights would be the property of a public authority who would auction tranches off each year with the global sum determined by environmental criteria. One might wager this will require more extensive police presence and metering infrastructure.

126 Max Ghenis January 9, 2017 at 10:14 am

Below market rents on federal land seems inefficient for similar reasons to rent control. Selling some federal land but enacting a high land value tax on it (Henry George style) would be a good way to test LVT, generate revenue, and see how private owners use these lands without speculative sprawl concerns.

127 slightlylesshairyape January 9, 2017 at 10:36 am

“#4 is an OK argument, but I don’t see why it would apply to properly done land auctions, which is indeed how federal disposal of the land has evolved.”

I think the same problem applies. In 1920, there was no scientific process to assess what land contained natural gas trapped in shale that would start to become economically recoverable in the 1990s/2000s. So if you auction off North Dakota in 1920, you wouldn’t really get an “optimal ownership” as you were describing in #4.

This is probably a more general problem that new information about the utility of land that arises from scientific progress in resource extraction causes inefficiencies.

128 njmsn January 9, 2017 at 11:12 am

Economics hasn’t really figured out this tragedy of the commons thing, has it? While an analysis of real estate premiums for lots that adjoin federal land might shed a little bit of light on the subject, it’s fair to say that open spaces are undervalued, especially by those that haven’t been isolated in a several mile radius. See ‘digital detox’ retreats for examples of people willing to pay up to be out of cell phone coverage.

Idaho is a terrible place to live and visit. Don’t come.

129 LNM January 9, 2017 at 11:14 am

The national forest system was created specifically for managed extraction of natural resources — particularly lumber — as per point 1(b). This was an early form of conservation, and while there’s less danger of forests being clear cut today, I think that their original purpose still holds.

As for BLM land, that was mostly land that no one wanted to homestead. At this point, it also mostly exists for managed resource extracting (such as cattle grazing). However, if the land went up for sale, I doubt that ranchers would have the money to buy enough good land to support their herds, and much of the land is still pretty useless. That map partly reflects that fact that there’s a lot of desert in the southwest.

I’d add a point 6: the government should hold onto these lands if the citizens want it to. As a citizen, I am a part owner of these lands, and I don’t want them to be sold. Full stop. I realize that not everyone agrees, but if a majority does, I think that’s a very compelling reason to continue holding the lands. If the government tries to sell these lands, you’ll see a massive (misinformation) campaign against the government selling our national parks. I think that such a campaign would be quite effective — never mind that it wouldn’t be true. (You’d see some liberal fake news.)

130 Hazel Meade January 9, 2017 at 11:29 am

As a citizen, I am a part owner of these lands, and I don’t want them to be sold.

Imagine that you, as a citizen, would like to buy a parcel of this land, build a house on it and retire.
How much of an “owner” do you feel like if the federal government won’t let you access these lands to do anything with them?

131 Boonton January 9, 2017 at 2:42 pm

I don’t get this question. Why would I feel like an owner if I haven’t purchased something? If I wanted to purchase something, I look at stuff that is for sale. Not everything is for sale at any given moment in time. What’s the issue that some of the stuff not for sale is owned by the federal gov’t versus a state gov’t, a private trust or simply owned by someone else who just doesn’t want to sell for any random reason?

132 Hazel Meade January 9, 2017 at 2:47 pm

The question at stake is whether the federal government should sell land or not. Presumably, if you’re looking to buy, you’ll be happier if there’s more land on the market no? In some places, federal ownership significantly reduces the amount of land that would otherwise be available.

133 Boonton January 10, 2017 at 12:13 pm

“Presumably, if you’re looking to buy, you’ll be happier if there’s more land on the market no? In some places, federal ownership significantly reduces the amount of land that would otherwise be available.”

Sure. If I was looking to buy scrap metal I’d be happier if the gov’t suddenly decided to eliminate an aircraft carrier group or two.

But I’m one person. So one person would be happy to buy some land that the Fed gov’t owns. Presumably there’s at least one person who thinks it’s a good idea the Fed gov’t owns some land to keep it empty. That’s one person’s happiness against anothers.

Your argument works if the one person who wants to buy the land is the only person who cares one way or the other. If that was the case it is extremely unlikely the Fed. gov’t would have even owned the land to begin with.

134 peri January 9, 2017 at 3:07 pm

I don’t really feel like a co-owner of Ted Turner’s 2 million acres, but I’ll keep trying.

135 Hazel Meade January 9, 2017 at 5:57 pm

Do you feel like a co-owner of the ANWR ?
Do you regularly visit it, or just look at glossy photos in magazines once in a while?

My point is that there are people out there who don’t just want to look at photographs of government owned land and fantasize that they are co-owners of it. There are people who actually would like to personally own some of it – because it would make them happy. Because they want to live in a little house in the middle of nowhere.

136 Art Deco January 9, 2017 at 6:12 pm

You wouldn’t build it in ANWR. They only get about 1,000 visitors a year. It’s tundra (with rabid arctic foxes) which gives way to slagheap like geologic formations.

137 peri January 9, 2017 at 7:42 pm

“… it would make them happy. Because they want to live in a little house in the middle of nowhere.”

People can do that only BECAUSE of the existence of so much public land in this country.

Perhaps we are working from very different definitions of “hermit,” and what it is they are looking for.

138 Hazel Meade January 10, 2017 at 11:13 am

I’m confused as to how you’re supposed to go be a hermit in the mountains if the government won’t let you buy a plot of land or build on it.
Or how the government not letting you buy land makes it possible for you to be a hermit, exactly.

All I’m saying is that public land ownership isn’t really “public”. It’s just land denied to human beings to use for anything except occasionally going out and looking at. I’m not saying turn the land over to mining companies or ranchers. I’m saying make it available to people who want to buy it. Keep lots of it for public parks, but make sure there’s enough available that people who want to can buy some. Don’t artificially constrain the market by keeping it in federal hands.

139 peri January 10, 2017 at 11:58 am

“As a result of acquisitions and disposals, federal land ownership by the five agencies has declined by 23.5 million acres since 1990, from 646.9 million acres to 623.3 million acres. Much of the decline is attributable to BLM land disposals in Alaska and also reductions in DOD land.” – from the Congressional Research Service, a couple years ago.

I think, Hazel Meade, things are trending in the direction you want. Plus, at my state level, there is reliably presented here at every legislative session, a bill to sell off ALL of our state parks. I imagine it is also only a matter of time before privately-held conservation land – that under easement – is undone as well, between the courts and the IRS. The sort of people who care enough about these sorts of things to do the work to defend them – I’m not talking about people who answer surveys, that they are vaguely “for” the environment – are a rapidly-diminishing, gray-headed resource.

And I’m not being glib: it’s interesting to me how little interest libertarians take when the issue is reservoirs (understand East Texas is very well-provided for in the way of fake lakes for bass fishermen):

https://www.texastribune.org/2015/01/08/twdb-marvin-nichols-decision/

I know how little interest they take, because I’m acquainted with the one person in the state who fights these things decade after decade, and she’s not got an army.

And, even if the project is staved off, once proposed, it never dies. If that’s your land, how would you like to have that hanging over your head? Or even if it’s just the county you live in? Yes, the urban county can get its reservoir built against the wishes of the county they want to build it in. (I shouldn’t ask – since we’re opposite numbers, I’m sure you’re good with that.)

And I apologize also, I didn’t answer your question earlier, about whether, when I look at a picture of the ANWR in a magazine, do I feel that something’s missing and want to build a house there? Just me. Well, that’s not likely. Just some new roads, a subdivision of 500 ranchette lots, streetlights, one small RV park, and a few businesses to service them.

No.

140 Rafael Pereira January 9, 2017 at 11:39 am

clearly, you do not seem to think the construction of Brasilia (the modern capital of Brazil built on huge plots of federally owned land) was a good idea, right? I can’t blame you.

141 Hazel Meade January 9, 2017 at 11:41 am

Nice way to put up the Thiago Ribero bat signal.

142 Rafael Pereira January 9, 2017 at 12:33 pm

?

143 Thiago Ribeiro January 9, 2017 at 1:02 pm

1) Brasília is widely considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I, myself, have been to Brasília twice and I found it amazing, the proverbial City Upon a Hill.

2) It was the engine of the transformation of the poor, forsaken deserts of the Brazilian Mid-West in one of the breadbaskets of the world.

144 Mike Linksvayer January 9, 2017 at 11:49 am

China apparently does 2+3:

> Some countries also capture the in crease in value when land is converted from rural to urban use. Zhao and Webster (2011, 530) explain this process in China: “Central to this business model is the Chinese state’s monopoly of the primary land market: only the state (municipal) government can legall y convert rural land into urban land … this business model has fuelled the rapid urbanisation of Chinese cities for over a decade. Underpinning the model is an assumption that the uplift in land values caused by urban development (betterment value) should be retained by the state and not be shared with private individuals.” In Shanghai, land-based revenues accounted for 35 percent of all lo cal revenue and over 50 percent of total revenue growth between 2006 and 2010 (Bahl and Linn 2014, 33).

Excerpted from http://www.shoupdogg.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2015/04/Charging-for-Parking-to-Finance-Public-Services-May-15.pdf

145 peri January 9, 2017 at 11:51 am

If you’re going to call for public land to be made a gift of, to private interests – hopefully for consistency’s sake, you’ll also call for all the reservoirs to be drained so folks can get those actually productive bottomlands back.

146 Art Deco January 9, 2017 at 2:08 pm

No one called for it to be made a ‘gift’. That’s your cheesy bit of gamesmanship.

147 peri January 9, 2017 at 2:51 pm

Your faith in the process touches me.

Though really, Trump should have put Perry at Interior instead of Energy – if he wants to maximize mysterious land transactions.

148 Art Deco January 9, 2017 at 4:18 pm

Your faith in the process touches me.

You’re inclination to shift from forensic games to status games disgusts me.

149 peri January 9, 2017 at 5:23 pm

Not reindeer games? You lost me on the flip side there.

150 Slugger January 9, 2017 at 11:54 am

I live in the West in one of those states with a big portion of federal lands. I am bit of an outdoorsman and regularly enjoy fishing, hunting, hiking, and skiing on federal lands. Privatization will decrease public access; obviously private is antithetical to public. However, I am not worried since I am a rich guy. Ranching is not very profitable these days. Privatization will inevitably result in locking up access to the benefit of us rich folk. In most of the world, it is outside the financial means of the ordinary citizen to participate in many sporting venues. Not many regular Joes go salmon fishing in the rivers of Scotland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, or the Atlantic Coast of Canada. Right now, salmon fishing with a reasonable chance of success is available to median income people in OR, WA, and AK. This will end under private ownership.
I have fished for steelhead on the John Day River for years. The rancher owner sold to the Nature Conservancy because ranching is simply not that profitable these days.
Privatization will not hurt my chances to enjoy these lands and will likely increase them since the hoi polloi will be excluded. Us rich guys aren’t worried.

151 Li Zhi January 9, 2017 at 12:27 pm

Trying to understand this:”… for now I am putting on hold a possible #6: “federal land ownership is the most efficient way to regulate mining and fossil fuel extraction.” It raises issues far beyond the scope of the current discussion, though it is significant. ”
How could normal utilization of land: farming, housing, mining, industrial use, agricultural use, energy use, ecological “use”, recreational use, educational/research use, etc. etc. be beyond the scope of a blog post on federal land?? How could regulation of land not be relevant or (obviously) within the scope of this post? “Let’s consider the use of automobiles, but for my purposes, I will exclude their use in transportation, (although I admit it’s ‘significant’).” I mean, seriously?

152 Adam January 9, 2017 at 12:28 pm

How about the opposite question: what’s the point to privatizing?

For the most part, we’re talking about very low value land. Transferring ownership to private hands won’t accomplish much.

The except is where there’s something to extract, of course, and then you need to get into #6.

153 chuck martel January 9, 2017 at 12:59 pm

“Transferring ownership to private hands won’t accomplish much.”

That makes sense if you’re a communist. The principles on which the US was founded and has, to some extent at least, continued to operate, include the private ownership of property. Whether that private ownership “accomplishes much” really isn’t part of the equation. A significant part of the American Revolution was rebellion against the Stuart king’s awarding property and licenses to their allies. The colonists wanted in on the free land bonanza. Until they got control of it. Then they took the place of English royalty in land disbursement.

154 Adam January 9, 2017 at 1:15 pm

George III was not a Stuart. Nor had there been a Stuart king for nearly a century before the revolution.

Public ownership of some – not all – land is not communism, in particular where that land is of little value to private owners.

Talking about “communism” as a concept in revolutionary America is an anachronism.

As is pretending that sovereign landholding isn’t the most deeply-rooted concept imaginable.

155 chuck martel January 9, 2017 at 1:48 pm

Maryland was chartered by Charles I in 1632, Virginia in 1606 by James I, Pennsylvania in 1681 by Charles II, and so on.

“As is pretending that sovereign landholding isn’t the most deeply-rooted concept imaginable.” The term sovereign landholding is a tautology, whoever holds it is sovereign.

156 Adam January 9, 2017 at 3:05 pm

And who chartered each colony has what to do with “A significant part of the American Revolution”?

“The term sovereign landholding is a tautology, whoever holds it is sovereign.”

Um, no. Unless you’re insane and/or unconcerned with the law.

157 Hazel Meade January 9, 2017 at 1:45 pm

what’s the point to privatizing?

To give more people the freedom to pursue happiness?
Why does there have to be some overarching national goal involved? Why is the fact that some person wants to own a piece of “low value” land in the middle of nowhere not sufficient reason to let him buy it? Maybe he’ll do something with it we can’t predict that turns out to be brilliant and innovative. Maybe he won’t. Why does it matter?

158 Adam January 9, 2017 at 3:03 pm

Because the land is already owned.

159 Hazel Meade January 9, 2017 at 5:38 pm

So the satisfaction you derive from a 1/300,000,000th stake in a piece of scratch land in Nevada is more important to you than the potential happiness that another human being might derive from owning it?

160 Art Deco January 9, 2017 at 2:07 pm

Transferring ownership to private hands won’t accomplish much.

No, it won’t accomplish much you care about. What it will accomplish is putting timber and grazing land in the hands of private owners to make the most beneficial use of it they know how.

161 Art Deco January 9, 2017 at 12:48 pm

When should the federal government own land?

1. As grounds for the physical plant of federal agencies and authorities.

2. As right of way for federal roads.

3. Parks, preserves, and trail systems which incorporate the coast, cross state lines, encase a monument of significance to the sweep of national history, are the site of a battlefield, or are the site of a military or veterans cemetery.

4. Aboriginal reservations.

Deed the remaining park and preserve land (including old growth forest) over to state governments or (quite selectively) to philanthropies like the Nature Conservancy. Put the forest and grazing land on the auction block provided you (1) secure a constitutional amendment debarring the assessment of property taxes on forest land and (2) implement a scheme to compensate the current holders of grazing permits.

162 peri January 9, 2017 at 1:59 pm

There are in my state essentially two national parks as most people conceive of them. These did not begin as federal land. My state is white in the above map. One of the parks was mainly the realized dream of a private landowner – it was his wish to see a park made of the beautiful place he had first discovered as a petroleum geologist. The other is in country which was very easy to damage but from which people soon saw it was very difficult to wrest a living (cat litter mining, I believe, remains the chief going concern). Motivated some by preservation and some by the hope of tourism, it started in the 1920s as a petition from the local citizenry [local here = hundreds of square miles], though it would take a herculean effort over several decades by a great number of private citizens and state officials before it became a national park. Schoolchildren gave their pennies. Unimaginable now for a number of reasons, not least that if a meteor drops on a room containing my husband and father-in-law, there would be no actual conserving conservatives left in my state.

If you want to take these parks and give them “back” to somebody, I’d honestly rather see you give them to Mexico ahead of the cretins that for some time have occupied our statehouse.

163 Art Deco January 9, 2017 at 2:03 pm

You fancy your statehouse is occupied by ‘cretins’ but Congress is not?

If there aren’t economies of scale or multiple jurisdictions implicated, I’m not seeing the point of federal ownership. The Adirondack State Park is handsome, in spite of the legislature being run by the likes of Shelly Silver.

164 peri January 9, 2017 at 2:47 pm

Art, I’m not up to speed on Congress and couldn’t tell you the name of my congressman.

I expect only this of Congress: because it draws from the whole country, it includes people who though no doubt as addled as all the rest in their views, yet retain some measure of – call it restraint, if not sense – merely from the fact of their hailing from places where the culture is not yet completely destroyed.

I do not live in such a place, and to yield our hard-earned national parks to the state would be to inflict a punishment, not score a victory; and it would be to spit on the graves of an earlier, and a better, group of citizens and statesmen. It would be a radical thing to do.

165 robert e reichardt January 9, 2017 at 12:49 pm

By punting on option 6 you miss out on the most important of the arguments being made. This piece essentially assumes its way out of actually engaging in the problem.

166 My Tribe Is the Only Virtuous Tribe January 9, 2017 at 1:30 pm

Yes, #6 is great.

“I am putting on hold a possible #6: “federal land ownership is the most efficient way to regulate mining and fossil fuel extraction.” It raises issues far beyond the scope of the current discussion, though it is significant.)”

Yea, please take that off of hold and put it in a later blog post. It’s indeed highly significant.

167 chuck martel January 9, 2017 at 1:56 pm

It’s important, in some way apparently, that the US government own and control the fossil fuel resources of Arctic Alaska instead of the Eskimos that have lived there for uncounted centuries. A tiny percentage of US citizens have ever even laid eyes on Prudhoe Bay but feel such a well-defined sense of ownership for it that they take a personal interest in its flora and fauna while ignoring the natives that make up part of that fauna and have their own needs and desires. What would New Yorkers think if the Eskimos decided there was too much traffic across the Brooklyn Bridge and made efforts to restrict access?

168 Art Deco January 9, 2017 at 4:25 pm

About 5,000 Eskimos live on Alaska’s North Slope. I doubt the skill sets to make us of the oil in the ground there are all that prevalent in that population.

169 chuck martel January 9, 2017 at 8:06 pm

The North Slope Inupiat not only don’t have the skill sets to exploit the oil resources locked beneath 1600 feet of permafrost, they’re not intelligent enough to acquire them. They’re just not as bright as New Yorkers who are born with those skill sets and so many others. In fact, they’re not intelligent enough to hire people that do have the required skill sets. A society that has been intelligent enough to flourish in an environment so hostile that strangers to it regularly perish just doesn’t have the skill sets to hire drilling, transport and refining companies to exploit their resources. In fact, if it weren’t for white people and the Bureau of Indian Affairs the Eskimos and their similarly intellectually bereft neo-lithic cousins would have disappeared long ago.

170 Art Deco January 9, 2017 at 9:52 pm

You said that, not me.

171 Ricardo January 9, 2017 at 1:28 pm

This map includes everything from Indian reservations to ballistic missile testing ranges. It would be more useful to see how land is broken up by usage and government agency.

172 Art Deco January 9, 2017 at 2:36 pm

Most is held by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service. The overwhelming bulk is held by the BLM, the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service. Aside from these, one of the larger landlords is the Bureau of Reclamation. The Bureau of Reclamation’s holdings could fit into three Montana counties on the Canadian border.

173 John Mansfield January 9, 2017 at 2:05 pm

As a son of Nevada, I think about federal land ownership a bit. This is the first time I can think of it being the focus of post at this site. Three years ago Tyler Cowen did ask, “Why was the housing bubble so much worse in Las Vegas?” I came to that post late and left the last comment, pointing out a factor none had mentioned: “A thing to remember about Las Vegas land development is that 87% of Nevada land belongs to the federal government, and turning any of it over to private ownership requires an act of Congress. Las Vegas is ringed up by federal land. Just yesterday a bill to de-federalize 660 acres to Las Vegas and 645 to North Las Vegas was before the House Natural Resources Committee, and was stalled because all the various interests aren’t reconciled yet.”

Federal land ownership in the west is not only a rural matter. Like the cities of Las Vegas and North Las Vegas, UNLV has been working with Congress for years to move its campus to a 2,000 acre tract at the north end of the Las Vegas Valley, which of course is federal land, and 60 miles to the west, there is action to transfer 280 acres of land for a Pahrump campus of Great Basin College. All of these land-use issues, which would be complicated decisions with many interests to be balanced in any state, always in Nevada have the added complication of being federal issues subject to a national political process. On the national level, the needs or wishes of UNLV, let alone the Great Basin College Pahrump Campus, are very unimportant, and it is not a good thing that they have to be presented to the U.S. Congress, and then mixed into all the national politics of passing bills.

174 Boonton January 9, 2017 at 2:59 pm

http://www.civicdashboards.com/state/nevada-04000US32/total_housing_units has a helpful graph showing housing units in Nevada by year from 2008.

https://www.census.gov/prod/cen2000/phc-3-30.pdf seems to give us housing units in 2000 as well as the previous census.

So I’m getting housing units Nevada:
1990 518K
2000 827K
2008 1,127K
2014 1,199K

Assuming Federal land ownership has remained roughly constant there seems to be a lot of housing growth in Nevada over the last few decades.

175 Art Deco January 9, 2017 at 4:45 pm

About 80% of Nevada’s population (> 2.1 million) lives in the densely settled (> 1000 per sq mi) tracts around Las Vegas and Reno. You can put that many people at ordinary suburban densities into a space which occupies 1% of Nevada’s total land area. As long as federal authorities refrain from landownership within a discrete distance from extant tract development, urban development will suffer only circumscribed damage.

176 Boonton January 9, 2017 at 4:59 pm

Part of the draw to living in a city is that you are very close to a lot of economic and social action. But cities create a premium on being close. There’s plenty of homes in Long Island and New Jersey, that doesn’t help much for people that want to live and work in NYC….so when NYC adds housing they tend to build up rather than out Needless to say there’s no problem with massive federal land ownership around NYC.

177 jorod January 9, 2017 at 3:38 pm

The government owns land to reduce competition for its friends. Crony capitalism.

178 responsible D January 9, 2017 at 3:55 pm

Isn’t federal government ownership of the vast wastelands of the west desirable simply so that they’re reliably administered and policed?

If the federal government didn’t own most of Nevada, what government power would be exerted over that space, and with what level of competence? Somebody has to ensure those areas are under control.

179 Art Deco January 9, 2017 at 4:20 pm

No public agencies do not ‘administer’ land more reliably than owners with skin in the game, at least in a systematic way. We seem to have adequate law enforcement in the eastern United States without state ownership of the countryside.

180 Charles Jackson January 9, 2017 at 5:00 pm

How much property taxes are the states and counties missing out on by having that land in federal hands instead of private ones? Or do the feds compensate the local governments somehow? Sincere question, since I know little to nil about property use and regulations.

181 Art Deco January 9, 2017 at 6:09 pm

The Payment-in-Lieu-of-Taxes program was inaugurated in 1976. The transfers from the feds to localities are quite modest, however.

182 John Mansfield January 9, 2017 at 8:31 pm

For 2016, “PILT payments totaling $451.6 million were made to approximately 1,900 local governments.” These ranged from about 40 cents to $1.10 per acre in 2015.

183 Charles Jackson January 9, 2017 at 5:01 pm

How much are the western states and counties not receiving in property tax revenue because all that land is in federal hands instead of private? Sincere question, btw. I know little to nil about property use and regs.

184 curcuas January 9, 2017 at 10:19 pm

In “What Hath God Wrought,” there’s a pretty good discussion of exactly this issue – one of the most important in the early 19th century. The Whigs tended to oppose selling off government lands, ostensibly for reasons #2 and #4, but frequently for #5 as well. The old-Republican type Democrats favored selling off all government lands to shrink the government and it’s budget, hence prompting essentially what you posit as reason #5. A more western-oriented Whig like Henry Clay usually argued along the lines of guiding development and enhancing the value of the land sold.

185 cw January 10, 2017 at 1:29 am

“The government can either waste some of your land or some of your money, take your pick”

The vast majority of the land is open to public access and is left fairly wild. I don’t call that a waste at all.

186 peri January 13, 2017 at 1:42 pm

I wish you had commented at the beginning of the thread. Might have saved us all some time. A ridiculous discussion ensued because people have opposing meanings for the word “waste.”

187 Chris January 11, 2017 at 12:09 am

Outside of mineral extraction, what would be done with the land if in private hands? The West doesn’t have enough water: The parts that are irrigated are only due to massive, mostly federal water projects by the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers.

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