The lofty-sounding Great American Outdoors Act recently passed the Senate and is poised to become law. But there’s nothing great about the legislation. The act creates a massive, permanent and mandatory expense line-item in the yearly American budget for the purchase of federal land. Not only is this federal land grab at odds with the Constitution, but with nearly one-third of the United States already in federal hands, one has to wonder: why does the national government need more land?
Today, the federal government owns approximately 640 million acres or 28% of the landmass of the United States. But all states are not created equal when it comes to public lands. There is an East-West geographical divide. The New York Times estimates that the federal government owns about 47% of all land in the West, but only about about 4% of land east of the Mississippi River. An astounding 80.1% of Nevada, for example, is federal land; Utah is 63.1% federal land; and the state where I grew up, New Mexico, is 31.7% federal land.
The Great Outdoors Act
The Great Outdoors Act has two main components. Section two provides much needed funding for a $21 billion backlog in maintenance for national parks and other federal lands. Most everyone agrees that this is money well spent—the maintenance backlog on federal property has been building for decades.
Section three is another kettle of fish. It permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million per year. While the fund administers state and local grants for recreational facilities, a minimum of 40% of funds are used exclusively to purchase federal land. That’s $360 million a year to buy land. In 2019, the price of pasture land in the Mountain West averaged $634 an acre. Thus, in a single year, the federal government could purchase 567,000 acres. At that funding level, it won’t take long for the federal estate to swallow up more land in the West.
Worse, the GAO leaves it to administrators to determine which parcels of land to acquire. Once the bill is passed, Congress would not be consulted on the amount or type of land the LWCF purchases.
Federal land holdings numbering in the hundreds of millions of acres would have been incomprehensible to the Founders. The Constitution clearly lays out three types of public land: “territories,” “enclaves” and “other property.” None of these categories contemplate a federal government that owns one-third of the United States.
Recognizing these constitutional principles, American land policy has long been one of divestment. In the mid-to-late 19th century, Congress passed numerous statutes that divested public lands, like the Homestead Act of 1862, which disposed of approximately 1.29 billion acres of public land to private and state ownership. It was not until 1976, with the enactment of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, that Congress declared that public lands generally would remain in federal ownership. Now, the GAO will allow the government to buy up even more property.
Devastating Local Impacts
Proponents of the law are quick to champion the job-creating nature of the GAO. But those jobs will flow from money dedicated to renovation, not acquisition. Because states may not tax federal property, when the federal government buys land, that land is removed from state and county tax rolls. Congress partially compensates for lost jobs and economic development by providing payments-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILT payments). Those payments, however, often do not come close to approximating lost tax dollars.
And more is at stake than tax dollars. As farms and ranches are swallowed up by the federal estate, families leave, and they don’t come back. There are fewer people to shop at the one grocery store in town, fewer people to frequent the one restaurant, fewer people to buy gas at the locally owned convenience store, and fewer students in school. The local public school I attended, for example, has approximately 80 students kindergarten through 12th grade. It is only one of two public high schools in a 3,831-square-mile county. The loss of any family makes it more difficult to provide education to the remaining students.
Some proponents of the LWCF claim that every dollar spent yields a $4 benefit. That statistic is at best misleading. It is based upon a Trust for Public Land study that not only estimates projected gains, but includes all sorts of intangible goods like water filtration and flood protection. As beneficial as these goods may be, they do not put money back into the local economy (and existed prior to the LWCF purchase).
It’s for reasons like these that proponents of the GAO live mostly in urban and suburban areas.
As the Denver Post reported in June, “Urban voters are pushing leaders to acquire more land for parks and other open space.” Or as the vice president for the National Wildlife Federation put it: “Denver could identify property that is worth acquiring and use Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars to help acquire it.” It’s all well and fine for Denver citizens, or those living in New York, to pick out a new playground in the West, but when vacation is over they will return home while local communities must live with the impacts of federal land holdings.
We in America love our parks. Our family spends countless hours at local state parks and anticipates camping trips to iconic national parks like Yellowstone. Our love for parks, however, doesn’t justify expanding the federal estate by up to half a million acres every year. It’s time for the president to say enough is enough, prioritize care of the federal land the government already possesses, and reject future federal land grabs.
Erin Hawley is senior legal fellow at Independent Women’s Law Center, senior fellow at the Kinder Institute for Constitutional Democracy, and a former clerk to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.