The all-too-familiar idea “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste” has reared its head in Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D–NV) Clean Energy Jobs and Oil Company Accountability Act of 2010. In addition to proposing hurdles high enough to trip efforts to develop energy resources in the Gulf of Mexico, the proposal would gift to the greens one of their long sought desires: a full pot of money in the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LCWF). It would be a big pot of cash that can be spent “without further appropriation” to, among other things, gobble up more private property.
Similar provisions are contained in the House’s Consolidated Land, Energy, and Aquatic Resources Act of 2009 (CLEAR Act). Structuring such a perpetual funding machine is one of the many recommendations the green community made to the Obama Administration in “Transition to Green: Leading the Way to a Healthy Environment, a Green Economy and a Sustainable Future.”
The LCWF was created decades ago and authorized for $900 million annually to come predominately from receipts from the government’s offshore oil and gas leases. As it is, Congress has had to authorize expenditures from the fund, and the greens have been frustrated by a history of it not being fully funded. Still, according to CRS, between 1965 and 2002, $8.7 billon in LCWF funds enabled the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management to acquire about 4.5 million acres, an area slightly smaller than New Jersey. In the same period, CRS found that the LCWF also funded 37,000 state and local projects totaling approximately $3.5 billion to conserve another 2.3 million acres.
Reid’s bill would fill the fund with a minimum of just under $5 billion through fiscal year 2016. Spending these funds would no longer require congressional approval. Between fiscal year (FY) 2017 and FY 2020, all LWCF funding—without fiscal year limitation—would be subject to appropriations. For FY 2021 and beyond, the LWCF pot would be filled with a minimum of a half billon annually and, again, evade congressional approval.
When this concept was floated during the 107th Congress as the Conservation and Reinvestment Act Fund (CARA), CRS noted that “support for the CARA legislation seems less intense in this Congress, possibly because of growing concern about a likely federal budget deficit in future years.”
Well, it’s the future, and the budget deficits are beyond what anyone could have imagined during the 107th. However, even if we were not saddled with enormous budget deficits, at some point one has to ask just how much more government ownership and control over land we need. Currently the federal government owns in the neighborhood of 653,299,090 acres. That’s an area larger than Mexico and Afghanistan combined, and it does not include lands owned by state, county, or municipal governments.
Beyond the simple fact that the federal government does not need to be spending even more money it does not have, there are numerous other reasons this is a bad idea. For one, the federal government can’t manage what it already has. In 2003 the Government Accounting Office (GAO) reported, “Over the years, the [National Park Service’s] estimates of the cost of its deferred maintenance have varied widely—sometimes by billions of dollars. Currently, the agency estimates that its deferred maintenance backlog will cost over $5 billion.” By 2007, GAO reported, “Last year, the [Interior] department spent $1.6 billion on annual maintenance and construction but had a $9.6 billion backlog of deferred maintenance projects.”
Along the same lines, the Government Services Administration reported in 2004 that the federal government owned some 5,104,608 acres classified as “vacant.” That’s an area larger than Massachusetts. Do we really need to increase the maintenance burden for federal agencies when they can’t handle what they already have?
But also gobbling up more private property is a bad idea for the economy in general and for communities across the country. Federal policy already recognizes that federal land ownership can erode local tax bases by having provisions for payments in lieu of taxes (PILT). According to the Department of the Interior, the amount authorized for PILT in FY 2010 under the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 was $358.5 million. Do we really need to take more land off local tax roles?
Further, once part of the federal estate, land is more subject to the whims of government regulators and of Congress. Using the regulatory machine, plans are floating around the Obama Administration to lock up millions of acres of the federal estate, which would likely thwart job-creating activities like ranching, mining, and forestry.
For its part, Congress already crushed any hope of significant economic use of millions of acres of federal land by jamming through the 1,248-page Omnibus Lands Act of 2008. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that monstrosity at more than $6.4 billion, and that does not include royalties and resulting tax revenues that might have been generated from forgone economic uses. Do we really need to constrict economic use of more land?
The greens shill for an ever larger federal estate, peddling the idea of an ecotourism economic boom. Senator Reid’s home state is already 84.48 percent owned by the federal government, and that does include any foreclosed housing (FNE, FME, FHA) now in government hands. While there are quite a few unemployed in Nevada with enough time on their hands to go backpacking, more government land is not what they need, nor does the nation need a special entitlement nestled within the federal government to please the insatiable greens.