Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality

Privatizing America the Beautiful

By David G. Young

WASHINGTON, July 15, 1997—

FOR SALE: 1.6 million acres NW Wyoming. Mountain views, springs, geysers, lakes, yellow stone cliffs. $1 billion, OBO. Contact U.S. Land Liquidation Co.

  W hen Congress reached a deal with President Clinton to balance the federal budget by 2002, fiscal conservatives were quick to jump on to their next goal— paying off the national debt. Rep. Mark Neumann (R-WI) leads efforts to use future government surpluses to pay of the $5.3 trillion debt. "The merits of paying off the federal debt are enormous," Neumann says, "[A]n average family of five who is currently paying $600 per month just in interest on the federal debt, will no longer have that burden."1

Maybe so, but who will pay the money required to eliminate the debt? If Neumann has his way, the same family of five— in addition to all other taxpayers— will be stuck with the bill. That doesn't sound so fiscally conservative to me.

Confiscating taxpayers' money to pay off government excesses of a previous generation is repugnant enough by itself. It's especially outrageous when that same government continues to possess enormous assets from which the debt could be retired.

The U.S. government presently owns over 657 million acres of land in the United States— an area equal to 28 percent of the entire country.2 Unless you're a resident of the rural West, it's probably difficult to comprehend the magnitude of this property.

  • Federally owned lands cover an area larger than all of the states on the east coast.
  • Two thirds of the huge state of Alaska is owned by the U.S. Government.
  • Over 80 percent of the state of Nevada is owned by the Feds.
  • Uncle Sam owns enough land to give an average American-sized housing lot to every man, woman and child now living on the face of the earth.

Most of this land remains left over as unclaimed homesteads from the end of the 1800s— land that was deemed worthless to the nineteenth century man. This is not, however, the nineteenth century. Federal land surrounds many fast-growing Western cities like Phoenix, San Diego and Las Vegas. Massive petroleum and precious metal deposits— unknown by or beyond the technology of the nineteenth century man— cover the landscape. Most of this wealth is lost on a careless and out of touch governmental landlord. Selling it at auction would generate hundreds of billions— maybe trillions— to be applied toward the national debt.

And that's just undeveloped land. Equally as striking is the incredible waste of resources by government facilities in high-value urban areas. In parts of Washington, where property sells for over a million dollars per acre, the U.S. government maintains dilapidated barracks, warehouses, and gravel piles. In other cities, such as San Diego, San Francisco and New York, insanely valuable waterfront property is misused for military warehousing. Add these areas to the auction block and the debt comes down even further.

Government privatization and deregulation have come a long way in the past 20 years, liberalizing airlines, telecommunications, space industries, and most recently electric utilities. At the dawn of the third millennium, the triumph of private enterprise over government ownership is almost universally accepted. To perpetuate government ownership of over a quarter of the landscape is sheer lunacy. Its privatization is the challenge of tomorrow.

Unfortunately, This inevitability is lost on President Clinton, who has declared 1.7 million Federal acres as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. As he tightened the federal grip on the Utah landscape, the President declared, "Let us always remember, the Grand Staircase-Escalante is for our children."

Yes, it is, Mr. President. They'll be buying it at auction.

1. Rep. Mark Neumann's Home Page

2. BLM Public Land Statistics, 1996