The Great Lie of National Public Lands Day
By Tom Hurst, 27 September 2008
Just when I thought I'd come to grips with the many whacko holidays that are all the rage these days, I came across yet another: National Public Lands Day (the last Saturday in September each year). Why, you ask, do I care to comment on it? It's just another harmless holiday that celebrates something, right? And, public lands, well, where would we be without those beautiful wild areas? Well, I say wrong and wrong! First, this holiday is simply another example of Leviathan celebrating itself when - as I'll explain below - it's clearly not warranted and, second, as far as I'm concerned it's crystal clear that the Constitution does not authorize most government owned lands. Before we even get started on those issues, however, let's get the terminology straight. Just as "public" schools are actually government schools - owned by, and run by and for the government, not you or I - so, too, "public" lands are in reality government lands - owned by, and run by and for the government, not you or I. This is a very important distinction, for private lands are the property of individuals, and private property rights are guaranteed by our Constitution, while government lands are supposedly owned by, well, the government. And don't think for a minute that "the people" own those lands, for I intend to show that it is more than obvious that government treats these lands as its own and does what it wants with them, no matter our will.
To begin, just what are "public" lands? If one lives east of the Rockies, about the only obvious government lands are a few relatively small parks and recreation areas, military bases, or perhaps some historical sites. So, to people in those areas, I would guess that there is little concern about such things because there is no reason to think the government is out of control. But in the intermountain west (the vast area between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada), government is quite clearly out of control. Indeed, just about everything that one can see from anywhere is more than likely government land. For instance, though overall 50% of the land in America is owned by the government, the state of Nevada (from where I write this) is over 90% government land! What does government use these lands for? To be fair, some of the withdrawals in Nevada - such as the Air Force Bombing and Gunnery Range and the Nevada (nuclear) Test Site - are at least quasi-legitimate in the sense that our Constitution authorizes defending our country and our rights, and these areas to some degree further that cause. Beyond these, however, despite the fact that our Constitution generally does not authorize government land ownership, there are vast tracts of land at least nominally controlled by the Forest Service, National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management. And what government does to these lands would be a crime even if they were "public".
Now, to be "public" lands, it seems to me that most basically the public must be able to use them. Yet that is generally not the case, for as a matter of routine, access is limited and land use is strictly controlled, particularly in areas designated as official Wilderness Areas and potential wilderness areas (Wilderness Study Areas), and even remote non-wilderness areas. Roads are routinely closed - roads that have been used for decades by locals, miners, loggers, hunters and fishermen, hikers and such. During the Clinton era, an official national rural road closure plan, the Roadless (Areas) Initiative, was even developed by the various federal land agencies. In Nevada, it was estimated that over 70% of the dirt roads in the state would be shut down and "restored" to their natural state. And in a state as rural and large as Nevada, that's an awful lot of roads and an awful lot of land essentially off limits - off limits just because the government doesn't want us there.
But the government doesn't need to create law to close roads - they just need to want to do it. For example, after being closed for more than a decade, not for legal reasons, but by Forest Service inaction, the washed out Jefferson Canyon road in the Toquima range - a road used for over 100 years - was ultimately re-opened in 1994 (on the 4th of July, appropriately!) by 200 or so local patriots headed by no less than rancher and Nye County Commissioner Dick Carver (R.I.P.) sitting astride a D-7 bulldozer. I was there, and I can assure you that it was both hilarious and pathetic to see the head Forest Ranger alternately jump in front of the reversing bulldozer holding a hastily made cardboard sign proclaiming something ridiculous like, "Stop! You are committing an unauthorized act.", and then clumsily scramble to the side as Dick Carver's bulldozer roared forward. In just a few hours, Carver had properly repaired the 100 yards or so of washed out road that the Forest Service had purposely not repaired for more than 11 years. It was quite an event, and I was proud to witness it and to have been one of the first to drive over the 9,000 foot pass on the newly repaired road. Of course, other federal agents there made sure to take lots of pictures of all of the people and vehicles present, so I'm guessing that all of the patriots there are now ironically in the government's domestic terrorism database. So much for living in a "free" country!
There have been other similar incidents, too. In Elko County, a similar short stretch of road on the edge of the Jarbidge Wilderness - one purposely blocked with huge boulders and debris courtesy of the Forest Service - gave rise to the infamous Jarbidge Shovel Brigade, so named because they ultimately re-opened the historical road using, obviously, shovels instead of heavy equipment. The situation between locals and Elko County on one side, versus the state of Nevada, the Feds and environmentalists on the other, was tense and contentious for months, during which it received national publicity. Though I couldn't be there at the time, I did pledge my support, and my name is on the giant shovel that the patriots who ultimately repaired the road proudly displayed on the front lawn of the county courthouse. And to the south of Elko, a rancher who wanted to clean up and develop a neglected spring to yield more water for cattle and wildlife also got in trouble with Uncle Sam. There, local patriots helped erect a range fence around the spring source, each donating a T-post labeled with their name. Of course, the government, being tyrannical in nature, felt it necessary to secretly photograph every single fence post - and there were a lot - so the names of each offender would be recorded in perpetuity. Variants exist too, such as the many cases where private inholdings (small parcels surrounded by government land) are via various government shenanigans essentially forced into government hands. There are, of course, many other cases where the public is kept out, but these few incidents should show you the pattern and clear intent of the government: keep people off of public lands as much as possible, and consider those who oppose those policies as enemies of the state. Isn't it curious that government somehow considers the most important thing they can do to "public" lands is to keep the public out?
And then there are the people who actually live and work in the vast rural areas of the intermountain west. Most basically, the towns themselves, though surrounded by miles and miles of open country, are ironically starved for space more than any big city because they are totally land-locked by government land. That, of course, translates into high land prices and severely limited opportunities for growth. Beyond that, counties that depend on property tax find themselves on the short end of the stick as the government pays no taxes on its land (though modest payments in lieu of taxes are sometimes arranged). It's a poverty forced on rural towns only because they've had the sad luck of being surrounded by government land instead of private land. And the only solution is for government land to become private land.
Occupying small private inholdings between the towns are ranchers, most of whom graze their herds on government grazing allotments. Many of them have for more than 100 years been the ones preserving and even improving the government land and waters they use through their stewardship. Indeed, central Nevada rancher and patriot Wayne Hage, Sr. (R.I.P.) has successfully shown in the highest courts in the land that such people have a legitimate ownership claim to the lands and waters they productively use. The alternative is highly politicized "management" by the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service, and their record is pretty sad. So sad, in fact, that one could even say that they abuse the land through their mis-management and incompetence. Witness their allowing wild horse populations in Nevada to explode to the point that ranchers were having to remove cattle from their lands due to lack of forage and water - forage and water that was instead being consumed by hordes of government horses. Or the obviously ridiculous no-burn policy practiced by the government in forests for the entire 20th century. The indisputable result was complete ecosystem disruption at all levels from day one, followed decades later by artificially intense fires that caused yet more environmental destruction. More recently, there's the Southern Nevada Water Authority that has spent over $100 million buying every private ranch they can in east-central Nevada with the sole intent of pumping out as much groundwater as possible and sending it to Las Vegas via a $10 billion pipeline they indend to build. Despite all of their patronizing pro-environment propaganda, it is a hydrologic fact that they will ultimately destroy the ecosystem ala Owens Valley, California, and with it the rural Nevada culture and ranching industry. In the meantime they are driving up land prices (and hence taxes for private land owners) because they are flush with urban money and are thus paying up to ten times the true market value for property. And laughably, having bought the livestock along with the land, they consider themselves "ranchers" despite the fact that they are losing $700,000 per year on their government ranching operation, and additionally even pay a lobbyist $120,000 per year to rub elbows at cattlemen's conventions. The icing on this Marie Antoinette cake is that they spent nearly a year and what any normal person would consider a small fortune having meeting after meeting, hiring consultants and historians, and having focus groups, all to come up with an appropriate design for their "official" government cattle brand. Now, isn't that sweet? Of course, this tremendous and irresponsible waste of our wealth is their sole purpose in life, despite the fact that under private ownership the very same lands would actually produce wealth!
As for miners, realize that mineral extraction in the west provides a great deal of our national wealth, and when the government unconstitutionally locks up resources in various protected areas, it is impoverishing its citizens. Indeed, a huge portion of one of the largest and best quality coal reserves in the entire world (roughly located in the four-corners area where Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico come together) was made permanently off limits via corrupt and deceitful late-night legislation in the final days of the Clinton presidency. Is this really something that should be done in this age of increasing energy demand? Beyond such shenanigans, mining, though technically allowed on government land, is in practice all but prohibited through ridiculous over-regulation and over-taxation. Indeed, the bureaucratic hurdles have become so absurd and extreme that it takes on average nearly a decade and many tens of millions of dollars before actual mining of a mineral discovery can even begin. This, of course, impacts the financial bottom line such that many potential wealth-producing mining ventures are simply never realized because of government policy and government land ownership. Everyone in the global mining industry knows this well, so it was hardly a surprise to me that every single mining company executive that I queried at a recent mining conference told me emphatically that there is no way in hell that they would even consider mining in America because it is shockingly cheaper and faster to do it just about anywhere else in the world. And, make no mistake, they were quite clear that they are going elsewhere not because of cheaper labor or richer ore deposits, but explicitly because of America's expensive over-regulation and high taxes. Further, with our misguided, excessive post-Enron Sarbanes-Oxley legislation (a.k.a. the Public Company Accounting Reform and Investor Protection Act of 2002) greatly increasing the accounting costs of just being a U.S. corporation, they are in droves listing their companies on stock exchanges anywhere else but America. Even high tax, socialist Canada manages to attract far more mining and oil & gas ventures than supposed economic powerhouse America. Now, what does that say about our sad state of affairs? In any case, I hardly need mention that none of these things would be a problem if most lands were privately held and we had a Constitutional government.
While the Constitution indeed authorizes government ownership of small amounts of land for a few very specific purposes (military bases, etc.), it certainly does not authorize the federal government to essentially own and control entire states. So, the bottom line is that nearly all existing government land is not only un-Constitutional, but, as I have explained above, is hardly "public" in that what people can do on/with them is in reality subject to the whim of government. Beyond that, even common ownership by "the people" would be socialism at best. What's the solution? I think that totally privatizing government land, i.e. simply selling it off to the highest bidder, is the obvious and best solution. First, land would enter private hands, be they corporate or individual, and would therefore become productive in some way. Private land, like other private property in a free market, generates wealth - wealth that over time works its way through society and thus increases everyone's standard of living. The second reason is that selling such vast amounts of land would raise vast amounts of money, money that could be used to retire the national debt, or to buy out contributors to the bankrupt Social Security system so that future citizens can plan and save for their own retirement instead of pathetically depending on mother government to extract money from younger taxpayers to support them in their old age. This would allow America to return to a Constitutional government of low or no taxes, and no meddling in our lives or with our property.
Now, one might say that there might be no access allowed to some private lands, or that they may be environmentally abused. I'll admit that either might happen to some degree, but I would assert that it would certainly be on a smaller scale than the current status. Regarding access, as I have described earlier there are already vast tracts of government land - tracts that get larger with every passing day - that we cannot access. And as for pollution and environmental degradation, not only does government hold the clear record for the most polluted land, but also the record for the most land polluted. It would seem - and free market economics predicts this - that it is private owners who value their property that generally make sure that the value of their land is protected. Further, in a free market, property is almost always used to create wealth, so will necessarily be used for its best purpose. In the hands of government, however, "public" lands suffer from what's called the "tragedy of the commons". In that scenario, since no one owns or is responsible for the land, no one cares about it. The inevitable result and perverse incentive is that everyone in a sense uses it up because if they don't, others will. Indeed, the next time you hear an environmentalist cry out that this or that piece of land must be protected, I would suggest that you tell them the very best way to do that would be for them to get together with their friends and simply buy it! In any case, in the end, the free market solution would create private property and real wealth, and would strike down socialism and unConstitutional government land ownership.
Now, back to the issue of National Public Lands Day itself, the expensive fiasco of eight federal agencies bringing people together to celebrate and supposedly improve our "public lands". In light of the above, I hope you now realize that it's simply a propaganda festival - a Great Lie designed to glorify the almighty state - and a travesty of a holiday that should never be in a free country with a Constitution as grand as ours. Indeed, the above facts tell us that in reality it's just a celebration of big tyrannical government, socialism and profound incompetence. And these are things that we should decidedly not celebrate. How about we have a Private Lands Day instead? Now, that would be something to celebrate!
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[Other articles may be accessed via the Archive page.]