Federal Land Giveaway

(This column was first published in the May 18, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    I dedicate this column to my friend and supportive colleague, Paul MacLennon, whose retirement as Buffalo News conservation columnist challenges those of us who care about our environment to take up his important cause.

    A few lines from "Macbeth" should instruct us:

    Consider in this regard the following instance.

    A bill sponsored by Senator Larry Craig of Idaho entitled "Public Land Management Responsibility and Accountability Restoration Act" is currently making its way through Congress. It is designed to turn management and even, through an application process, ownership of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management properties over to the states.

    Sounds reasonable, doesn't it? Today vast areas of this country are managed from Washington. It is difficult for us in New York, where less than one percent of the land is federally owned, to comprehend how significant is that ownership in the western United States. Federal lands there comprise over 40 percent of the area of eight states with Nevada topping the list at 77 percent.  How can the Feds know the particular problems of those properties thousands of miles away from the nation's capital? Why not assign management and even ownership of them to the states, giving control to local people who know and understand the problems of their region and can therefore respond to them more appropriately?

     This argument begins to wear thin when we identify the bill's sponsors and supporters. According to Idaho writer Dewey Haeder, 17 of the 19 bill provisions were prepared by lawyers for the timber industry and its major supporters are tied to resource extraction -- lumbering, mining and grazing interests.

     Consider what is going on here. These industries already enjoy tremendous leverage in Congress through campaign contributions and associated lobbying. For example, 20 of their PAC groups have contributed to Senator Craig's election campaigns. They clearly exert powerful pressure on our Federal government. But applied state by state they would enjoy even greater power. Their bill is a clear attempt to divide and conquer.

     Consider two examples of this kind of effect. First, what if, instead of the entire nation, today only one municipality fought the tobacco industry? That single local government's resources would be no match for a powerful international industry that can and does influence not just local courts but also local lawmakers. It would be no contest.

     Second, consider how this operates in western New York. The open lands of this region have been and are being gobbled up by largely uncontrolled developers who exert powerful influence over town officials through campaign contributions. Recently, for example, I received campaign literature for local candidates. A footnote indicated that it had been paid for by a real estate consortium. In the days ahead such special interests will fight hard against any regional planning that would dilute their influence.

     Our federal lands are already under attack by "Wise Use" -- read that "lawless use" -- proponents and by armed militias. In many areas today Forest Service agents must travel in pairs, their lives threatened. And state officials admit that they haven't the ability of federal agencies to stand up to those who menace them.

     We think of the wonderful parks of the west like Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon as "our" parks but ours too are vast forests and open lands of the west that we drive through at exorbitant speeds and little notice. Many of those lands are already abused. Let's not try to cure that abuse by simply giving them away.