Remember when Strange Maps “discovered” that so much of the 13 western states is owned by the Federal Government? On the one hand, it was nice to see people paying attention to public lands in the west.
At the Bathtub, we remarked on the history of the issue with a map that showed where the publicly-owned lands really are (the Strange Maps version only showed a dot in the middle of each state proportionate to the federal land held in the state.) On the other hand, it was an open invitation for know-nothings and know-littles to jump in with silly ideas. Remarkably, the post remained free of such folderol — until just recently.
- In October, a Portland real estate blogger picked up on the post at Strange Maps. His post related information — but in the comments, one fellow urged we sell off the lands. Oregon has a good amount of land held in trust by federal agencies, but it’s far from the the highest percentage. Oregon has benefited from public lands more than many other states. Who would suggest selling off assets?
- The Capitalist Digest — which misappropriates Jefferson’s warning to the clergy (famously engraved around the rotunda of the Jefferson Memorial, but I digress) — displayed a remarkable lack of historic perspective and a unfamiliarity with capitalist property law, declaring that the federal government’s holding lands in trust was one of the things Marx and Engels wished to see (November 10, not a week after the election). Had Marx and Engels actually meant that wise land stewardship was something to be striven for, that public lands should be used to the public good, they would have been in the bosom of capitalism when they did so (I suspect they were not in favor of poor stewardship.) The Capitalist Digest would urge burning Milton Friedman and Jesus Christ if their names had appeared in the Communist Manifesto. This is not a bunch that works on principles and reason. Under U.S. law, federal land management is not communist at all with small exceptions made to support American cattlemen, sheep ranchers and mineral and oil extractors, and I doubt that the Capitalist Digest really intended to indict American oil producers, miners and livestock operations. The Capitalist Digest blames their insanity on Robert Higgs at the Independent Institute, as if The Capitalist Digest can’t make up their own minds.
- Then, on November 13, Marginal Revolution wondered aloud about selling off the public lands identified at Strange Maps, in order to establish “a buffalo commons.” Do these guys even think before their fingers dance on the computer keys? Why would we savage buffalo commons in Utah, Wyoming, Montana, and elsewhere across the west, in order to create others in the Dakotas? Didn’t they figure out that the problem in the Dakotas was selling off too much of the public lands, too cheaply? Don’t they know anything about the Dust Bowl?
- Market Urbanism pushed the Marginal Revolution article.
- A blog called Horn Bar joined in.
- Religious naifs got into the fray. They blame their temporary (we hope) insanity on Ross Douthat, at The Atlantic’s blogs.
- Etl World News (?) joined in.
- This issue really doesn’t have anything to do with trading Order of the Arrow patches (a Boy Scouts thing), but that didn’t stop OA Trader from weighing in on the wrong side noting the piece at Marginal Revolution (though, as Bill points out in comments, he doesn’t endorse the view – my error).
- I realized things had gotten way out of hand when Tobin Harshaw at The Opinionator, a New York Times blog, jumped on the bandwagon.
None of these sites gives any serious thought to the idea. None provides a scintilla of an iota of analysis to indicate it would be a good idea.
As one of the the principal spokesmen for the Sagebrush Rebellion in the early days, I want it known that I’ve thought these issues through, and argued them through, and followed the documentation for 30 years (Holy frijole! I’m old!). Issues with public lands revolve around stewardship. Bad stewardship is not improved by a change in ownership. Ownership change has all too often only led to worse stewardship. Selling off the public lands is a generally stupid idea.
Certain local circumstances change the nature of a tiny handful of such deals — but not often, not in many places, and not enough to make a significant contribution to retiring any debt the federal government owns.
On the other hand, incomes from these lands typically runs a few multiples of the costs of managing them. The Reagan administration discovered the lands were a great source of money to offset losses in other places, and for that reason (I suspect) never really got on the Sagebrush Rebellion band wagon — or, maybe Reagan’s higher officials just didn’t get it.
It’s troubling that such a flurry of stupidity strikes now, during a transition of presidents. This is how stupid ideas get traction, like kudzu on a cotton farm, while no one is paying deep attention. Let’s put this idea back into its coffin with a sagebrush stake in its heart.
Bottom line: Keep public lands in federal trust. The Sagebrush Rebellion is over. The sagebrush won.
Speaking of presidential transitions, who should be Secretary of Interior? Stay tuned.
- “Can the West Lead Us to a Better Place?” David M. Kennedy in the Stanford Alumni Magazine, May-June 2008. Too rare, a thoughtful article about land use in the American West, and how we should proceed.