The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife recently announced its intention to acquire 9,600 acres of land from the TransAlta power plant property north of Centralia.
To many people, the idea of having some land set aside as pristine and untouched is a cherished notion.
But extensive public land may not be in the public interest. How much land is enough? Who looks after it? And who can use it?
Currently only 54% of the state of Washington is privately owned. Put another way, nearly half of the state is off-limits or nearly off-limits for human enterprise. Imagine if a population of an island was growing each year, but the land base to support it was shrinking.
Taking land away from ownership, production and provision for human needs, and moving it into state ownership reduces the opportunities for future generations. In addition, a growing population relying on a shrinking resource base creates inflation and increases the divide between the haves and the have-nots.
So how much public land is enough? The law demands that the state continue year after year “to acquire as soon as possible the most significant lands for wildlife conservation and outdoor recreation purposes.” This law has been in effect for 30 years now. When will this appetite to take land away from production and to put it in a state-curated museum accomplish its undefined goal?
Meanwhile, the land already owned by the state is not managed well. Economist Milton Friedman noted, “When everybody owns something, nobody owns it, and nobody has a direct interest in maintaining or improving its condition.”
Public lands are regularly shorted on maintenance and proper management. As the Washington State Parks department buys more land, it shutters the parks that it has. The Department of Natural Resources loses timberland to beetles and fire while it lets roads decay. Public lands regularly host the worst examples of noxious weeds and illegal dumping.
I’m also concerned about public land purchases being funded by bonds, which means my granddaughter gets to pay the mortgage for the state to acquire land. Centralia can’t afford to put sewer lines in for a new neighborhood in north Centralia where she might want to live someday, but the government can make her pay for land to forever prevent anyone from living on it.
Perhaps having half of the state set aside for conservation and preservation would make sense if the other half was actually free to use. However, the government doesn’t just conserve land by buying it. It also regulates the half that is private to accomplish the same goals.
A spotted owl or pocket gopher can put thousands of acres of land off-limits by government decree. Waterway setbacks, mitigation requirements, land use regulations, impact charges, zoning laws and the government purchase of “development rights” all have the effect of government “owning” a massive share of the private land which does still exist.
Is it any wonder that we see the cost of living climbing? When the government imposes artificial scarcity on a growing population then the government – not the evil capitalist – is to blame for the worsening financial outlook for the poor, the immigrant and the young.
If economics and philosophy aren’t motivating, consider also what it means for our community to shrink the tax rolls. The government doesn’t pay taxes on public land, so the tax burden for important public services gets shifted back to the existing private land.
Utopians who want to drive people into dense urban areas because it is tidy are doing a great damage to our future. They forget that human needs are met by using the land and resources. They pretend that government is wiser and better motivated to look after natural resources than people whose lives depend on those resources. And they don’t realize that what it means to be a human spirit is to live free and self-sufficient.
If, however, you think that opportunity for the next generation means we need to have the room for them to thrive, then please inform the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Submit comments about the 9,600-acre transfer of land from private use to government curation. Send them by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail to Real Estate Services, P.O. Box 43158, Olympia, WA, 98504.
Jami Lund lives in the Big Hannaford Valley where he keeps bees, talks on the radio and generally works to move the world from what it is to what it should be. Contact him at Jami@JamiLund.com