I admire good political writing. I’m not talking about all the hack pundits who endlessly defend their ideological positions no matter what the evidence might be. I admire political writing that makes me think about an angle I hadn’t specifically explored before reading their article. You’ve probably heard me mention David Frum…if you haven’t, let me introduce you. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the best conservative proponent in print or online. His website is a regular must-read for me…from the website introduction: “FrumForum.com is a site edited by David Frum, dedicated to the modernization and renewal of the Republican Party and the conservative movement.” His weekly contribution on the CNN website got my attention today…concerning all the property we own as citizens of the United States.
There’s a good reason for the federal government to own plenty of property. We need to hold land for federal offices, military bases, national parks and critical environmental land management. According to the U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO), nearly 30% of our national land is held for use or preservation by the federal government. In 1996, the GAO wrote a comprehensive report, finding that 95% of federal government lands are managed by four agencies: the Department of Agriculture’s U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service. Most of the rest of our federal land is controlled by the Department of Defense. While this percentage has increased slightly in the ensuing years, it’s still about 30% of our national land mass. I guess my basic question out of all this data is this: are all these decisions the same in perpetuity? Shouldn’t at least some of these decisions be revisited periodically for a reassessment?
A week or so ago, this idea would have probably glanced off of me harmlessly…it wouldn’t have made much of an impression. But…this week, it made me think long enough to recognize that land use and preservation decisions play a critical role in other important decisions. In the midst of our conversations on California water priorities, statements were made that land use decisions should be connected to water priority decisions…and vice versa. Hmmm…this seems to make sense. The public may support the supply of water for some uses of land while withholding their support for other uses. In addition…when there’s a shortage of water, some land use decisions should probably be reassessed. In the past, public decisions were made on land, water, energy, transportation and mineral resources as if time was irrelevant. It’s certainly easiest to think we can make one decision and let it stand forever…but more and more I believe this position to be short-sighted, illogical and dangerous.
That’s when I was struck by the brief article by David Frum. It appears that California land use decisions need to be reassessed because there’s just not enough water for all current uses plus all the projected new uses. Then…why don’t we have an on-going assessment of federal land use when economic, cultural or climate changes occur? It’s possible that more land should be set aside for federal protection and/or use. It’s possible also that different land should be identified as being a higher priority in some situations. It’s possible too that more land should be released from protection temporarily for use at critical times. Similarly, it’s possible that some land should be released to individual states, so they can make their own use and protection decisions. As soon as land use decisions are seen to serve the changing needs of the public and the environment, our need for public deliberation on basic resource management grows dramatically.
When the frontier was still open, there was no need to even discuss how to allocate limited resources…there were no limited resources. Those days are past…long gone! Those were easier times…no need to make any tough decisions on land or water or energy or transportation or mineral resources. Those days are past…long gone! I’m not convinced David Frum is correct in proposing we sell large blocks of federal land as a means to meet our budget or deficit woes…but I am convinced this is a topic we need to put on the table for discussion. This is the sign of a really good political writer…he or she can inspire others to expand their topic into an even wider public discussion. Let’s talk about land use as a public policy issue. We’ll find it to be the hub to many other public decisions.