Uncle Sam, land baron

Las Vegas Review Journal

Posted 11/19/2013

Include new Interior Secretary Sally Jewell among those who want President Barack Obama to bypass Congress whenever it suits his administration.

The president continues to make headlines for his unilateral tweaks to the Affordable Care Act, his simultaneous insistence that Obamacare is “the law of the land” notwithstanding. However, Ms. Jewell received considerably less attention this month when the former REI chief executive, clearly miffed that Congress hasn’t created any new national parks, wilderness areas or monuments since 2010, said she would recommend that President Obama act alone to set aside vast areas of federal land for conservation.

“The president will not hesitate,” Ms. Jewell told the Los Angeles Times. “I can tell you that there are places that are ripe for setting aside, with a tremendous groundswell of public support.”

Yes, national parks are popular with the public — so popular they had to be closed during October’s partial government shutdown to remind taxpayers who’s boss. And presidents have acted unilaterally to designate national monuments under power granted in the 1906 Antiquities Act. President Bill Clinton was especially fond of this authority, most famously creating the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Southern Utah in 1996.

But there’s a very good reason why Congress hasn’t hurried to make new conservation designations. The Interior Department controls too much land already — so much that it can’t effectively manage it all. The federal government owns about 30 percent of the entire country, but half of the West and nearly 85 percent of Nevada. A report released by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., on Oct. 29 found the National Park Service has an $11.5 billion maintenance backlog, even as Washington spends between $255 million and $529 million every year acquiring new land.

Meanwhile, federal land-use policies have left vast rangelands and forests overgrown, fueling devastating wildfires. And expensive moves to protect various species, including Nevada’s wild horses, have accomplished precisely the opposite.

We need less federal land and more state and local control of our acreage. The lack of privately owned land in Nevada limits property tax collections and prevents the kind of resource development that has made North Dakota an economic juggernaut. That’s why a bill to turn Southern Nevada’s fossil-rich Tule Springs into a national monument also releases thousands of acres from federal control and improves public access to thousands more acres.

But many environmentalists want no such trade-off. And that’s why Ms. Jewell wants her boss to act alone, yet again.

More national parks and monuments would be good for America. But only if we get local control of even more lands in return.

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