The Growing Federal Footprint
The Growing Federal Footprint
House Chambers, Washington, D.C.
September 7, 2016
I want to thank Congressman Gohmert for organizing this discussion of federal lands policy, and to highlight the Federal Footprint Map at Naturalresources.house.gov/federalfootprint. Or just google Federal Footprint.
When you do, you’ll have a complete picture of how much land the federal government owns and how much of your state and your community is affected. And it may surprise you.
It owns just 7/10ths of one percent of the State of New York. It owns just 1.1 percent of the State of Illinois. It owns just 1.8 percent of the State of Texas.
But then go further west and you will see the reason for the Western revolt. The Federal Government owns and controls 62 percent of the state of Alaska, 2/3 of Utah and 81 percent of the state of Nevada. It owns 48 percent of my home state of California. Nearly half. In one county in my district – Alpine County – the federal government owns 93 percent of the land.
If you are not from one of the Western states, you need to understand what that means. That’s all land that’s off the local tax rolls. It’s land that carries increasingly severe restrictions on public use and access, which means it’s generating very little economic activity to these regions. And often, federal ownership means that federal land use policies are in direct contravention to the wishes of the local communities entangled with it.
Recently, the Natural Resources Committee held a field hearing in North Las Vegas at the request of Congressman Crescent Hardy.
If you’ve flown into Las Vegas, you know how vast are the empty and unutilized lands of Nevada, stretching as far as the horizon. Yet local leaders all complained of how the region’s economy suffers from a great shortage of land – for homes and shops, businesses and infrastructure. What an irony – and what a commentary about the harm that is being done by the decisions of our federal land managers.
More than a century ago, we began setting aside the most beautiful lands in the nation for the “use, resort and recreation” of the American people.
But somewhere along the way, “public use, resort and recreation” became “look, but don’t touch.” And the federal government became indiscriminate and voracious in the amount of land under its direct control.
My congressional district is in the heart of the Sierra Nevada. Common complaints from my constituents and local government officials range from abusive federal regulatory enforcement, inflated fees that have forced families to abandon cabins they’ve held for generations, exorbitant new fees that are closing down long-established community events, road closures, and arbitrary denial of grazing permits for family ranchers who go back generations on that land. A small town trying to install a $2 million spillway gate for their reservoir was just given a $6 million estimate from the Forest Service to relocate a hiking trail and a handful of campsites.
Let me relate one quick story that came to me from the Sheriff of Plumas County just outside my district. An elderly couple horseback riding near their home came across an old horseshoe. An ambitious young forest service official saw them pick it up. The next thing they knew, six federal law enforcement officers descended on their home, tore it apart, and ultimately prosecuted them for removing the horseshoe. Ultimately the federal judge dismissed the charges and chastised the officials responsible for this travesty – but only after this couple had gone through hell.
Ask yourself, how would your local economy fare if the federal government owned 93 percent of the land in your county, forbade or greatly restricted any economic activity on it, and ignored your local city council or county board?
In my district, the federal government has consigned our forests to a policy of benign neglect, we now have roughly four times more trees per acre than the land can support. In this overcrowded and stressed condition, the trees can no longer resist drought and beetle infestation. An estimated 85 percent of the pine trees in the Sierra National Forest adjacent to Yosemite are dead. Christmas-tree-in-July-dead.
The National Park Service estimates it is facing more than $12 billion of maintenance backlog, yet we keep adding to the federal holdings that we can’t take care of.
That’s why the federal footprint map is so important to understand, and why fundamental reform of our land use policy is of paramount importance.
The Federal Lands Subcommittee has three principal goals: to restore public access to the public lands; to restore sound management to the public lands; and to restore the federal government as a good neighbor to those communities most impacted by the federal lands.
But overarching these imperatives is the simple fact that excessive federal land ownership in the West has become a stultifying drag on our economies and a direct impediment to taking good care of our public lands.
I think Congressman Gohmert put it best in a hearing last year when he compared the federal government to the miser whose old mansion has become the town eyesore – the yard is overgrown with weeds, the paint is peeling, the roof is dilapidated, the windows are broken – while he spends all his money and attention on plotting to acquire his neighbors’ properties.
There needs to be a proper balance between federal ownership, state and local stewardship and the productive private ownership of lands. One look at the federal footprint map should warn even the most casual observer that we have lost that balance, and we need to restore it.