While conservationists have criticized Republican Sen. Marco Rubio for saying the federal government controls too much land, one economist says Rubio is right, and his critics on the issue are “misguided.”
“Increasing federal control over America’s lands is misguided for both economic and environmental reasons,” Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute, said Friday in an interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation.
Edwards was responding to questions about the presidential candidate’s contention that the federal government should partition out to the states much of the land it controls in the West.
Rubio told reporters Wednesday the militia currently holding up a wildlife facility in Oregon have a valid grievance against the federal government, although he doesn’t endorse their tactics. While he doesn’t place in high regard the kind of “lawlessness” the militia is alleged to have used while occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Rubio said the group’s arguments against over-federalizing land are legitimate.
The Oregon militia group — including Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who gained notoriety for engaging in a standoff with federal authorities in 2014 — have sequestered themselves in a national wildlife facility to protest a court’s decision to extend the prison sentences of two ranchers, Dwight and Steve Hammond, for arson on federal land.
“I most certainly believe that the federal government controls far too much land in the Western parts of the United States especially,” Rubio told the Des Moines Register’s editorial board. “The state of Nevada is an example — it’s almost entirely owned by the federal government. And it goes well beyond the legitimate need of land ownership for defense purposes, for example.”
Edwards told The Daily Caller News Foundation that he agrees, adding that the federal government is an inefficient mess. Generations after the United States’ founding, the federal government’s default policy was to divest itself of land in the West, he said.
Though the U.S. Government privatized nearly 792 million acres of land between 1781 and 1940, it has slowly taken over more and more land in the West.
“The federal government is a poor land manager,” Edwards said, adding that “only local citizens and state actors can solve” the kind of problems that creep up when rancher’s grazing rights conflict with the restrictive policies of government agencies like the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Almost 85 percent of land in Nevada is owned by the federal government, while 53 percent of land in Oregon is under federal control.
The United States government currently owns 640 million acres of land, which is 28 percent of all land in the U.S., primarily for conservation purposes. The U.S. Department of Defense owns 14 million acres of land for defense purposes.
“Wildlife-dependent uses involving hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, photography, interpretation, and education, when compatible, are legitimate and appropriate uses of the Refuge System,” according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Conservationist groups have lamented Rubio’s desire to divert federal land to the states, arguing that privatizing, or annexing federal land to state governments, would be tantamount to creating a free-for-all for land abusers and poachers.
“Such a shift would give state governors unprecedented power to sell drilling and mining rights in America’s national forests, national parks, and other public lands; to waive environmental protections; and to seize revenues owed to U.S. taxpayers,” a 2015 report from the Center for American Progress reads.
“Sen. Rubio’s energy plan is the latest indication that the radical idea of selling, transferring, or privatizing America’s public lands and energy resources has entered the mainstream of Republican politics,” the report continued.
Progressive and conservationists, Edwards noted, like to “make out that Rubio and Republicans are radicals for suggesting de-federalizing land, but in fact it would be better, environmentally, if the land was given back to the states.”
In some cases, Edwards said, a lion’s share of Western land can be privatized. I think some of the national park services should retain their Crown Jewels like the National Yellowstone Park in Wyoming. But most of the parks should be turned over to nonprofit conservation groups, Edwards said.
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