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The High Cost of Federally Owned Lands


Former U.S. Sen. Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming used to say, “If government ownership of land and natural resources was the best way to protect the environment, then we should have found a Garden of Eden in the Soviet Union after the Iron Curtain came down. Instead, there was one environmental horror story after another.”

It makes you wonder if America faces a similar fate as the federal government already owns almost 650 million acres of land in the U.S. That’s about 30 percent of all the land area in the nation and includes national parks, forests and wildlife refuges.

That’s 1 out of every 3 acres in the U.S.–1 out of every 2 acres in the West, says Congressman Rob Bishop (R-UT), a member on the Natural Resources Committee and ranking member on the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.

Federal lands are managed differently based on their purpose. Some lands are managed by the National Parks Service, others lands are held as wildlife refuges and still others are labeled wilderness areas. How the federal government regulates these lands often impacts the economies of surrounding local communities.

A study by Environmental Trends in June 2011 looked at the relationship between wilderness areas and local communities by comparing county total payroll, county tax receipts and county average household income. The findings concluded that when, “controlling for other types of federally held land and additional factors impacting economic conditions, federally designated Wilderness negatively impacts local economic conditions.”

This isn’t good news, considering about 109 million acres of these 650 million acres owned by the government are labeled wilderness areas.

What is a wilderness area? Richard Pombo, former Chairman on the House Committee on Natural Resources, explains that inside a wilderness area no motorized activity is allowed. While some restricted federal lands might let you go four-wheeling or snowmobiling, wilderness areas do not.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 describes wilderness lands as:

“… an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of … undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions …”

With 109 million acres marked off as this kind of restricted land, no wonder surrounding communities struggle economically. Wilderness areas don’t just take away revenues from these surrounding local areas due to the lack of infrastructure and construction allowed but also may turn away tourists with the land’s long list of restrictions.

More specifically, the study by Environmental Trends, completed by students at Utah State University, found average household income within wilderness counties to be $1,446.06 less than non-wilderness counties. Likewise, total payroll in wilderness counties is about $37,500 less than in non-wilderness counties and county tax receipts in wilderness counties is about $92,910 dollars less than in non-wilderness counties.

Despite the cries from environmental communities that wilderness areas benefit local counties, the data simply isn’t there to support those claims.

In fact, some states in the western part of the United States visibly prove the negative side of these federally owned lands, whether they are labeled wilderness, national parks, forests or wildlife refuges. Washington State, for example, used to have a thriving logging industry.

“The forest service holds life or death over the timber industry,” says Don Todd, head of research at Americans for Limited Government (ALG). “They have leases that decide where to sell timber or whether or not a road can be built to get the timber out.”

Now that industry is virtually gone. Because of protected forestry laws, small towns that survived off of the logging industry were choked out. Sawmills were shutdown, and timber men were left unemployed. Formerly thriving areas have essentially become ghost towns.

As America struggles economically, as well as its states and local counties, is it really in the best interest of these local communities for the government to continue to cordon off lands as wilderness or other forms of federally owned land?

This study provides sound evidence as well as taking a look at the industries that have already been destroyed by the government’s heavy-handed environmental regulations and land grabs, that the answer is no.

In fact, the more the government takes charge over America’s lands and resources, the more Sen. Wallop’s observations of the Soviet Union might come true here as well.

Rebekah Rast is a contributing editor to Americans for Limited Government (ALG) and You can follow her on twitter at @RebekahRast.


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