Growing the Federal Government Further is Not a Conservative Idea

USForestServiceLandandPhotoWWriting in the American Spectator, Senior Fellow R.J. Smith has written an excellent rebuttal to a rather odd press release by the R Street Institute calling for the federal government to further expand federal land conservation programs.

The R Street press release contends that the federal government should acquire more land. It refers to this proposed growth in the federal government as “conservative” conservationism, apparently because the federal government acquired land during the Reagan Administration and also because some land purchases are financed by royalties paid to the federal government by energy companies.

Reagan, of course, was fallible (see below for more on his true record in this area), and even if he wasn’t, the federal government owns far more land now than it did thirty years ago. It’s illogical to assume that even if every land purchase Reagan approved was perfect back then, that more land needs to be purchased now.

And the point about royalties is, if anything, more silly. Royalties paid to the federal government are federal resources. If they finance something new, such as land acquisition, either something else in the federal budget has to be cut, the country has to go deeper in debt or taxes have to be raised. Even if they don’t finance something new, but consistently finance further land acquisition, they are resources that could be used for other purposes — purposes the taxpayers may be financing now.

Royalties are not magic money.

R.J. Smith, who wrote the article in his capacity as distinguished fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, where he also hangs his hat, makes numerous points:

  • federal lands are mismanaged, with “billion-dollar backlogs for the most basic maintenance”;
  • the R Street Institute, while trumpeting federal land conservation, ignored equally if not more compelling examples of successful conservation by private landowners;
  • federal land acquisition and management policies have led to abuses against law-abiding private citizens on many occasions;
  • the land acquisition program the R Street Institute praised has spent billions of dollars and is detested by many;
  • the federal government already owns nearly half of the U.S. land mass;
  • while Reagan did sign several bills creating new wildness areas, he vetoed others;
  • Reagan “strongly resisted congressional efforts to limit natural resource production and recreation on National Forests and Bureau of Land Management properties”;
  • Reagan said, during his first year in office, that the federal government already owned enough land and should do a better job caring for what it already owned.

Please read the whole thing.

It is one thing for the R Street Institute to argue for an expansion of the federal government, as it is entitled to its own opinions, but it is quite another for it to do so claiming this is a conservative principle. It simply isn’t.

Addendum, 9/10/13: Eli Lehrer has written a response.

Addendum, 9/11/13: David Ridenour weighs in on the debate with some pretty solid evidence from Steve Hanke about what Reagan’s views really were.

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