In the private sector, if someone allows a home to become dilapidated because he lacks the funds to properly maintain it, no one argues the situation will improve if that person buys another home. Yet that’s the model recently embraced by federal lawmakers.
The federal government owns more than 600 million acres of land in the United States, which is roughly 30 percent of the entire country and as much as half of some Western states.
That number is likely to increase, thanks in part to the federal government’s Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses revenue generated by offshore oil drilling to purchase land. Many of those purchases are used to expand existing national parks.
The problem is that the federal government doesn’t do a good job managing those properties.
As Nicolas D. Loris, a fellow at The Heritage Foundation, has written, the “massive amount of federal ownership has resulted in land mismanagement, stifled opportunities for recreation and resource production, and poor environmental management.”
He notes a 2011 U.S. Government Accountability Office report found the Department of the Interior had a maintenance backlog of $13.5 billion to $20 billion for the land it already owns. That deficit leads to “environmental degradation, soil erosion, gross amounts of littering, and land mismanagement,” Loris writes.
In a recent floor speech, U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, noted, “The problem is over the decades, we continue to accumulate more money in the Land and Water Conservation Fund and we continue to accumulate more land into the federal roll, but we’re not taking care of what we have.”
So, Lankford offered a sensible suggestion. He filed an amendment to require that LWCF spending on land acquisition not exceed spending on maintenance. The amendment would have also required that land acquisitions funded through the LWCF include funding for maintenance needs.
In other words, Lankford suggested that the federal government not buy land unless the federal government was going to take care of it. What a novel concept.
His proposal was rejected on a 63-34 vote. That certainly does nothing to undermine Congress’ reputation for ignoring reality and defying common sense.
The rejection of Lankford’s amendment was a triumph of bumper sticker politics over sensible policy. The lawmakers who voted against the amendment can now tout how much they are committed to the environment because they support funding to increase federal park land, even though in practice they’ve given a green light to environmental degradation at those parks.
This will perpetuate a system where, as Lankford pointed out, “the federal government is the largest landowner, largest land controller and the worst landowner in the country. Federal lands are maintained the least of any other large holder of land.”
He compared current federal government land-management practices to a parent allowing a child to buy a car when the teenager can’t afford to buy gasoline.
“Why have a car if you can’t put gas in it? Why continue to add land year after year after year if we’re not going to maintain it?” Lankford asked. “That’s not good stewardship of our resources.”
One would think even the environmental left would embrace this proposal. Instead, Americans are left with a system where environmental stewardship is only a slogan used for political purposes, not a true operational philosophy put into practice.