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September 22, 2005

Sell the Public Lands to Pay for Hurricane Relief?

Here it comes again! When the government gets into a fiscal bind, there are always those who say, "Sell the public lands." The latest to join the list is Congressman Tom Tancredo, who thinks selling "a portion of federal land holdings" might be a good way to pay for relief in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. If we did it, where would it stop? And, What will we do the day we wake up and realize we've played that game to its conclusion and now must face up to fiscal responsibilities postponed during the play?

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-CO) introduced a bill today [Sept. 21] to and to use the proceeds for natural disaster or terrorist attack relief. The bill directs the Secretary of the Interior Gayle Norton to designate 15 percent of federal land for sale, excluding National Parks and land held for Indian tribes. The Interior and Agriculture Departments would prioritize selling land in states where the federal government owns more than 15 percent of the total acreage.

"The federal government may be cash-poor, but it is land-rich. There is demand for farm and ranchland, and the federal government should have long ago transferred its massive holdings to the private sector, where it can be put to use," said Tancredo. "Not only would land sale provide a one-time cash infusion for the Katrina catastrophe, but also it would establish long-term property and sales tax revenue streams."

The federal government owns more than 654 million acres of land, including a majority of land in Alaska, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Utah. Only 2.4 percent of federal land in the U.S. is used for military purposes, and more than 5.1 million acres of federal land are classified as 'vacant' with no definable purpose.

According to an August, 2005 USDA study, the average value of farm and ranchland in the U.S. is $1,510 per acre. If the federal land designated by the Interior Department sold for the national average, the sale would reap nearly $148 billion. Even if the land sold for the least expensive average state price (New Mexico, at $290 per acre), the sale would still generate almost $19 billion.

Much of federal land holdings were set aside for homesteading in the 1800s, but because of minimal water sources and a lack of farming technology, the land was turned over to the Interior Department. The Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management routinely complains that it does not have the resources to provide upkeep for federal land.

"Environmental radicals put up regulatory roadblocks to use of our national land, often miring any sensible land use proposal in endless litigation. My bill would give environmentalists an excellent opportunity to put their money where their mouth is and buy up federal land for conservation," said Tancredo.

Posted by Dave on September 22, 2005 at 11:40 AM | Permalink


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I've talked a lot about environmental predators looking to exploit Katrina to advance their agendas, but they are not alone. [via Forest Policy - Forest Practice] WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-CO) introduced a bill today [Sept. 21]... [Read More]

Tracked on Sep 22, 2005 9:32:10 PM


Posted by: Mike Dechter

In situations like this I wish there was a system to penalize dumb (and very misleading) congressional press releases by subtracting votes when the next election comes around. Additionally, twisting the current hurricane relief effort into such a warped argument against environmentalists is very troubling.

Mike Dechter | Sep 22, 2005 4:35:21 PM

Posted by: alex dunn

Hmmmm, well I would have to take issue with the idea that federal land could be worth 1,500 an acre for agricultural use or whatever. Obviously there are higher value uses for land bordering communities, particularly in places like California. This seems like a good opportunity to utilize a monetized valuation of the ecosystem services that Federal lands provide. I know Dave doesnt espouse the widespread economic valuation of the ecosystem for cost-benefit purposes, an argument that I think has great merit, however this is a good example of how a simple methodology to quantify some of these eco-values can provide us a language for speaking to audiences with narrow, money-based worldviews.

alex dunn | Sep 23, 2005 10:33:24 AM

Posted by: Arnie Habig

Perhaps, Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-CO)would like to start with the sale of all the public lands in Colorado. We could see him on a reality T.V. lenching. And as the towns people walked into the sun set the question could be put on the T.V. screen, "Anyone else want to introduce a public lands sale bill?

Arnie Habig | Sep 26, 2005 12:08:18 PM

Posted by: dave iverson

What Alex is suggesting in “monetized valuation of ecosystem services” is something addressed in Lance Gunderson and C.S. Hollings, eds, excellent book Panarchy: Understanding Transformation in Human and Natural Systems. In a chapter titled “Dynamic Interaction of Societies and Ecosystems,” authors Martin Scheffer, Francis Wesley, William Brock, and Milena Holmgren suggest:

”Another logical approach to attack the power bias and push the political balance back in the direction of the social welfare optimum would be to aim at an institutionalized valuation of a broad form of cost-benefit analysis in public policy making, provided that it was based on a socially relevant accounting system (broad in the sense that a wider spectrum of values is considered rather than the narrower monetary values considered in traditional cost-benefit analysis). Given that the current policy-making process tends to select a far worse alternative, one may decide to support this form of a cost-benefit analysis even though it suffers from critiques such as ….”

In other words, the authors’ advocate for what they consider a second-best or third-best or whatever less-than-best approach to political-administrative decision making that is superior to the approach now in use.

Although distasteful to me, I have to admit that such “broad form of cost-benefit analysis” is far superior to much of the nonsense political administrative policy-making now in vogue. Superior, that is, if agreement on the numbers embedded in the analysis could ever be forthcoming. That latter “agreement” problem is legend, and best argued in J de V Graaff’s classic, if seldom read Theoretical Welfare Economics, published in 1957. But that is another story for another time and place.

Perchance forays into monetized ecosystem valuation will at a minimum discredit attempts to “run the numbers” in statements like Tancredo’s banter about $148 billion or $19 billion. Maybe “point, counterpoint” posturing that may come out of attempts to value ecosystem services will over time tend to settle things back to less analytical and less monetized political discourse. Or maybe not. Who knows?

My preference would be to forbid context-less numerology a la Tancredo. But also to minimize the effort needed to draw conclusions like, ‘The Earth’s ecosystem services are worth, say, $33 trillion.’ Truth is that the Earth’s ecosystem services are priceless to we humans. And we could discern that with simple thought experiments without need to resort to conjuring up productions functions, hedonic prices, etc. and employing a herd of economist-accountants in the process.

dave iverson | Sep 30, 2005 4:37:01 PM

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