Today, in the “land of the free,” four federal agencies control about 610 million acres or roughly 28 percent of all American land. That’s more than all the land in Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico combined. State governments own more on top of this. These lands include state and national parks and forests, campgrounds, grasslands, seashores, and other areas known collectively as “public lands.”
Administering these lands costs taxpayers billions each year. But instead of life-enhancing benefits, we get underfunded, crumbling campgrounds and parks, many of which are being shut down. We get natural resources that are often harvested at a net loss or not at all. And we get vast tracts of other land barred from development that could otherwise help to grow communities, create jobs, boost economies, and improve people’s lives. In short, government agencies have turned a vast wealth of natural resources that could enrich our lives and our country into a collection jar that never stops going around.
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We’re told that these public lands are necessary to ensure that America’s resources are used wisely, the thought being that if left to their own devices, people will shortsightedly wreck these resources. The Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi” encapsulates this view, warning us about people who “paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Those same people also
took all the trees
And put ’em in a tree museum
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see ’em
Interestingly, these lyrics succinctly describe an incident from the 1850s involving a tree that was cut down on public domain land—an incident that lifelong National Park Service (NPS) employee William Everhart credits for giving the nascent American conservation movement “a sense of purpose.” . . .
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1. William C. Everhart, The National Park Service (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1983), 5.
2. Stephen Fox, John Muir and His Legacy: The American Conservation Movement (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1981), 114.
3. Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” in American Progressivism: A Reader, edited by Ronald J. Pestritto and William J. Atto (New York: Lexington Books, 2008), 67, 86.
4. Theodore Roosevelt, “Progressive Platform of 1912,” in American Progressivism, 281.
5. Murray Feshbach and Alfred Friendly Jr., Ecocide in the USSR: Health and Nature under Siege (New York: Basic Books, 1993), 1, available at https://www.questia.com/read/99860797/ecocide-in-the-ussr-health-and-nature-under-siege.
6. I refer to public domain land that is not managed or regulated as as-yet unowned land. I do so because nothing and no one constrains its usage: not property rights, not government functions or decrees, and not bureaucrats. It is unowned because what is everybody’s is nobody’s.
7. Roosevelt, “Progressive Platform of 1912,” in American Progressivism, 282.
8. Thomas Jefferson, Inaugural Address of March 4, 1801, quoted in Noble E. Cunningham, The Inaugural Addresses of President Thomas Jefferson 1801 and 1805 (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2005), 5.
9. Paul Gates, The Jeffersonian Dream: Studies in the History of American Land Policy and Development (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996), 109.
10. Successfully establishing a homestead under the act was no easy feat. Settlers had to show proof of having improved their land claims, they had to live on the land for five years, and they had to complete the process within seven years. Gates reports that “For the country as a whole, slightly less than 50 per cent of the original homesteads were carried to patent.” See Paul Gates, The Jeffersonian Dream, “The Homestead Act: Free Land Policy in Operation, 1862–1935,” 48.
11. These included the Southern Homestead Act of 1866, the Timber Culture Act of 1873, the Kinkaid Amendment of 1904, the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909, and the Stock-Raising Homestead Act of 1916. See Paul Gates, Jeffersonian Dream, “The Homestead Act: Free Land Policy in Operation, 1862–1935.”
12. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Social Contract, Confessions, Emile, and Other Essays (Halcyon Press Ltd, Kindle Edition), loc. 432–44.
13. Woodrow Wilson, “What is Progress?,” in American Progressivism, 50.
14. Theodore Roosevelt, “Who Is a Progressive?,” in American Progressivism, 36.
15. Fox, John Muir and His Legacy, 108.
16. Rousseau, The Works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, loc.12520–12525.
17. William Wordsworth, “The Tables Turned,” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45557/the-tables-turned (accessed July 13, 2018).
18. Fox, John Muir and His Legacy, 108.
19. Gates, Jeffersonian Dream, 98.
20. Everhart, National Park Service, 6–7.
21. Everhart, National Park Service, 8–9.
22. H. Duane Hampton, “The Nation's First National Park,” How the U.S. Cavalry Saved Our National Parks (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1971), https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/hampton/chap2.htm.
23. “Birth of a National Park,” National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/historyculture/yellowstoneestablishment.htm (accessed November 9, 2018).
24. “Niagara Falls: Then and Now,” New York Power Authority, http://niagara.nypa.gov/RelicensingGreenwayFunds/EcologicalGreenway/NGR_Part01.pdf (accessed August 5, 2018).
25. “Niagara Falls” New York Power Authority.
26. Fox, John Muir and His Legacy, 108. Although Wells wrote this after Niagara Falls was made a park, he captures the general stance of conservationists before the park was established.
27. Thomas V. Welch, How Niagara Was Made Free: The Passage of the Niagara Reservation Act of 1885 (Buffalo: Press Union and Times, 1903), 22.
28. Welch, How Niagara Was Made Free, 3–10.
29. Welch, How Niagara Was Made Free, 24.
30. Welch, How Niagara Was Made Free, 3–10.
31. Welch, How Niagara Was Made Free, 13.
32. Welch, How Niagara Was Made Free, 10.
33. Welch, How Niagara Was Made Free, 15.
34. Welch, How Niagara Was Made Free, 14.
35. Welch, How Niagara Was Made Free, 10.
36. Welch, How Niagara Was Made Free, 24.
37. Welch, How Niagara Was Made Free, 32–33.
38. Fox, John Muir and His Legacy, 114.
39. Fox, John Muir and His Legacy, 103.
40. Everhart, National Park Service, 10–11.
41. Gates, Jeffersonian Dream, 111.
42. Fox, John Muir and His Legacy, 110.
43. Robert Righter, “National Monuments to National Parks:
The Use of the Antiquities Act of 1906,” National Park Service: History E-Library, https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/hisnps/npshistory/righter.htm, (accessed June 20, 2018).
44. This was a phrase used by Progressive president Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
45. Gates, Jeffersonian Dream, 111.
46. Gates, Jeffersonian Dream, 113.
47. Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” in American Progressivism, 85–86.
48. Theodore Roosevelt, “First Annual Message: December 3, 1901,” The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=29542 (accessed August 7, 2018).
49. Gates, Jeffersonian Dream, 112.
50. Fox, John Muir and His Legacy, 110–12.
51. Gates, Jeffersonian Dream, 112.
52. Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 167–68.
53. Fox, John Muir and His Legacy, 59.
54. Fox, John Muir and His Legacy, 14.
55. Fox, John Muir and His Legacy, 5.
56. “Land Areas of the National Forest System,” United States Department of Agriculture: Forest Service, January 2012, https://www.fs.fed.us/land/staff/lar/LAR2011/LAR2011_Book_A5.pdf; The USFS’s 193 million acres equals about 781,043 km2. The total area of Texas is about 695,662 km2, and the total area of South Carolina is about 82,933 km2. Together they equal 778,595 km2, which is 2,448 km2 less than the total area controlled by the USFS. These numbers come from “List of U.S. States and Territories by Area,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_and_territories_by_area (accessed November 13, 2018).
57. Rocío Lower, “How Many National Parks are There?” National Park Foundation, October 16, 2016, https://www.nationalparks.org/connect/blog/how-many-national-parks-are-there; In addition, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) controls 248 million acres, an area the size of Egypt or about 10.5 times the size of New England, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) controls another 89 million acres—an area bigger than Germany and a little smaller than Montana.
58. Holly Fretwell, “Restoring Our National Parks,” July 11, 2018, The Property and Environmental Research Center, https://www.perc.org/2018/07/11/restoring-our-national-parks/.
59. The 2019 USFS budget is $4.7 billion. Also, over the last decade, the NPS has cost an average of $2.84 billion per year; President Donald Trump has proposed a $2.7 billion NPS budget for 2019. The 2019 BLM budget is $930 million. The 2019 USFWS budget is $2.8 billion.
60. John A. Baden and Andrew C. St. Lawrence, “A Century of Forest Service Ineptitude,” Foundation for Economic Education, October 1, 1997, https://fee.org/articles/a-century-of-forest-service-ineptitude/.
61. Gates, Jeffersonian Dream, 113.