Free the Land

And now for a little history…

King Barry I’s recent royal edict declaring that nearly 2 million acres of California was to henceforth be off-limits to the rabble and become part of the royal forest system, a preserve for the special people. And  while that list is unlikely to include you, dear reader, be grateful that your tax dollars paid for it and will pay to maintain those lands for his highness’s pleasure.

Travel back in time to the reign of William the Conqueror (that’s late 11th century England). King William designated great swaths of England as “royal forests.” He did this for two big reasons. One, he needed royal-owned lands to generate income, furnish resources for the crown and provide a place to play for the king, family and connected elites. However, the rabble, some of whom lived in these “forests,” could not partake in these frolics nor utilize any of those resources. They were forcibly removed and their villages abandoned. Sound familiar?

The second reason was to keep the land out of private hands wherein it might be used against him. Land owners can be independent and hard to control but renters are always dependent upon a landlord.

Oh, and the term “forest” is misleading. Trees were not required to be a royal forest, merely acreage.

For anyone caught trespassing, working the land or poaching, the penalties were punitive; eventually enforced by a well-connected constabulary of often brutal thugs that tried offenders in special “forest” courts that they controlled. Sound familiar?

King William’s son and the next king was William Rufus, King William II. He was not well-liked (neither was William the Conqueror, but then he had earned his sobriquet, if you know what I mean). Rufus (meaning ‘Red’ for his supposedly red hair) loved the forests and frolicked in them with his growing retinue of friends and cronies. He also added to the royal forest domain. The unfavored and the rabble grumbled but could do little — a king is a king.

Until he’s not.

William Rufus met his fate, “accidentally” felled, ironically, in one of his beloved royal forests, by an arrow from a hunting buddy. And there was much rejoicing.

William Rufus’s brother and successor, Henry I, was a savvier king, securing the crown with a number of “liberties” for the barony (listed in the Charter of Liberties, which Stephen Langton used as a model for the Magna Carta). One of those promises was to pare the forests back to the time of William the Conqueror.

However, as we all know, government only grows. Even an occasional pruning is, in the long run, recovered by the creeping tendrils, or simple consumation by leviathan.

The following rulers slowly began the recroachment, though in a wiser and usually less aggressive way.

When modern people read the Magna Carta (you have read the Magna Carta, right? No? Go here, I’ll wait: http://www.ushistory.org/documents/magnacarta.htm) among the many perplexing items appearing in it are some relating to these “forests” (notably clauses 44, 47, 48 and 53 along with the introductory mention of ‘foresters’).

With King John’s arrogance, pettiness and blinding greed (he had inherited his father Henry II’s worst traits and none of his good ones), the issue of the “forests” and “forest laws” had come to the forefront again.

To keep it brief (and probably a bit too simple), by John’s time the royal forests had grown in number and acreage as to consume a large portion of England (it’s thought that at that time one could traverse England walking exclusively on royal forest land). And in these forests most men could not venture under pain of fine, dismemberment or execution. In addition these laws extended to include prohibition on killing most deer and boar anywhere, even if they wandered out of the forest and into a village or even a domicile.

Royal forests surrounded towns and villages. With no parliament to counter, the king could simply declare any land to be part of a royal forest, practically at a whim. He could also hand the land over to a favorite, as well. Such land also essentially became useless to all but the king and a handful of his favorites. It was off the tax rolls, lay fallow or unexploited, contributing little or nothing to national or local economies (sound familiar?).

Even local barons could not make use of or enjoy the land, unless the king approved or invited them. With its vastness and a lack of stewardship, the land could also become a haven for criminals and rebellious types — cue Robin Hood.

Currently “our” federal government “owns” 27% of the United States — around 640 million acres, over 1 million square miles. That’s equal to Alaska, California and Texas combined. It owns 84% of Nevada and over half of Alaska (69%), Utah (57%), Oregon (53%) and Idaho (smidge over 50%). It also has over one-third of Arizona (48%), California (45%), Wyoming (42%), New Mexico (42%) and Colorado (37%) and more than one-quarter of Washington state (30%) and Montana (30%).

People east of the plains simply have no idea of the vastness and occasional omnipresence of the federal government’s land. Only New Hampshire (13%), North Carolina (12%), Michigan (10%) and Virginia (10%)  are in the double digits. Most states are at 7% or less with a large number under 2%.

In many places out west it pressures the handful of remaining private landholders in federally-controlled areas to “sell” their land. It can make access to or use of that land difficult. Federal neighbors and landlords are notoriously petty, vindictive and increasingly political (left-wing variety). And it is only growing with King Barry looking to add several million more acres to the federal farm in Colorado and New Mexico. He does this through the Antiquities Act (passed in 1906), which allows him to bypass Congress on these deals. It is an act desperately in need of reform.

It has to be acknowledged that some of these lands are not without worth locally or nationally. The more popular national parks generate income for their region and many military bases are centers of their communities. But beyond the obvious winners, e.g. Yellowstone and Yosemite, Fort Sam Houston and the naval facilities in San Diego and Virginia’s Tidewater region, what purpose does the great amount of land in their hands serve?

What does the federal government do that state governments can’t do? Why should the folks of, say, a rural county in Utah find hunks of it cordoned off, unavailable to them; seemingly reserved for the brief pleasure of East and West Coast elites who might, one day, backpack through the area, renting a bike and leaving a few shekels behind for the locally barely-employed before they traipse off to France or Tahiti. That’s what wilderness areas and national “monuments” are all about. There are no ‘monuments’ at most ‘National Monuments,’ it’s an Antiquities Act stalking horse. Wilderness Areas are chunks of national forests and parks for which development has been banned. Vast resources doing little more than looking pretty for a post card, a selfie, a badge of travel or a flyover. The counties and states receive minimal (if any) revenue from them. People living next to them find themselves without employment — beyond possible intermittent seasonal work. They slowly die of starvation in the middle of a cornucopia that they are not allowed by a nonresident owner to touch. Sound familiar?

At one time, besides being tourist magnets, these great “national” treasures were supposed to be used as orderly resource providers — lumber, minerals, energy, etc. — not simply locked off as they are now. In fact, the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that a few years ago we were treated to the revolting spectacle of National Park Service employees doing the bidding of the Obama administration. During a government shutdown NPS employees attempted to prevent taxpayers from even viewing sites that could easily be viewed in the open from public roads. They also blocked off public access to Mount Vernon and easily accessed restaurants in national parks in Virginia. Those “employees” should have been hunted down and terminated after those escapades. These properties are not the domain of NPS employees. We cannot tolerate a government at war with its citizens.
The feds freely admit that they are incapable of maintaining what they have yet they clamor for more land. King Barry the Greedy has added 265 million acres, more than any other president. For a society that increasingly doesn’t own its own residences — taking other people’s land doesn’t seem to be much of a problem. When is enough enough?

These creatures of the federal government are bastards. Beyond the military bases they have no Constitutional justification. Even the military has more land than it knows what to do with.

I say return the lands to their rightful owners, the states and the individual people of those states. Some land could be sold to pay down the federal debt or put to other uses. In other cases the states should be allowed to do with those lands in a manner they deem fit. If they want to keep them as tourist attractions, so be it. Let those authorities answer to the people of those states. Perhaps California would love to maintain all those recently-minted “monuments’ of desert scrub, or maybe they want to sell/lease them to build solar energy facilities with off-road-vehicle parks in between. Or maybe they want them to remain untouched havens to the Desert Tortoise. Let the people of California decide that, not some bureaucrat in Washington or a trust fund baby “environmental” activist residing in a million-dollar Vermont chalet.

The Bureau of Land Management should either be terminated or returned to its original job of aiding the development of federally-owned resources. Parts of it can be transferred to state governments. The National Park Service should be cleansed of its political storm troopers and pared down to serve its much smaller holdings. The various parks and land services of other agencies should be eliminated and/or kicked down to state levels.

As for the elite parks, maybe by making them fewer in number, the National Park Service might be able to take care of them and use funding to maintain them properly.

Here is some further reading on the subject.

Somehow this piece made it into the New York Times, “Give States Control Over Public Land Out West.” The author of that piece, Robert H. Nelson, has done extensive work on the topic. Here is a good primer and here is a briefer piece at the Independent Institute.

Lawrence J. McQuillan, also of the Independent Institute, offered this recently, “Time to Privatize Federal Public Land.” The Independent Institute has worked on this issue.

Deroy Murdock had a great and succinct piece in National Review, “Hellacious Acres.” The problem has only gotten worse.

Rob Natelson of the Colorado-based Independence Institute recently pondered the Constitutional aspect of this topic, “What Does the Constitution Say About Federal Land Ownership?

The American Lands Council has been doing the yeoman’s work on this issue. Check them out.

Not surprisingly the American Legislative Exchange Council has been busy on the subject. Its Karla Jones recently testified on Capitol Hill on the topic.

Here’s a Montana-based think tank that has touched on this, as well — Property and Environment Research Center, here and here.

The Heartland Institute in Illinois has published on the topic..

The Heritage Foundation has done work in this and related areas, see its Energy and Environment section.

At most of the listed think tanks simply searching the term “federal land” will lead you to further articles and resources.

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