Local opinion columnists

Why does government own so much land?

By From page A9 | June 22, 2014

April’s standoff in southern Nevada over the Clive Bundy grazing controversy triggered much chatter about property rights. Many cheered a bold, courageous longtime rancher standing up to “the man,” whereas others saw a public moocher who hasn’t paid his obligations.

Lost in all the controversy was any reasoning of why the federal government is the landlord of scrub brush in the first place.
The Internet was jammed with amazing facts and controversial images surrounding the standoff. One intriguing infographic that resurfaced as a result is titled “Who owns the West?” and displays the percentage of each state’s acreage owned by the federal government (based on 2004 U.S. General Services Administration data). Twelve states west of the Rockies  (including Alaska) had double-digit percentages. Nevada leads the pack with 84.5 percent of the acreage in the state owned by the federal government.
California has a remarkable 45 percent of its acreage owned by the feds.

There may be some valid purposes for federal ownership: National parks, highway rights of way, federal prisons and of course, military bases. However, anyone driving through Nevada can tell that most of Nevada has none of the above. Why does the federal government need to own all of that land? Can we really believe that government will manage the land better than a private entity?

These questions should be directed at our state and local governments as well. The Los Angeles coliseum is co-owned by state, Los Angeles County and the city of Los Angeles. It is an aging facility and undoubtedly consumes many resources in its upkeep. Is there a vital purpose to the functioning of government that requires public dollars maintain this facility? Or should it be sold to a private organization, freeing up public dollars for more pressing projects?

Traveling around in our county, one notices that our local communities are pock-marked with empty lots and underutilized properties. With the real estate boom 10 years ago (and the current “recovery”), I am always surprised to see empty lots smack dab in the middle of an established neighborhood or business district.

Unfortunately, many of these properties are scar tissue from floundered redevelopment projects. Many parcels were acquired with good intentions or pipe dreams in mind, only to remain fallow to this day. Redevelopment may have been abruptly unplugged, but that does not excuse the poor business justification of so many of their acquisitions.

For example, we used to have a bowling alley and a truck stop. As ratty as they may have been, they provided some value to the community, and created some revenue to local governments. Now, due to questionable government initiatives, we have two scruffy, barren lots that provide no value to our community; yet we have to pay for the upkeep. Those who question how much liability an unkempt public property can expose our community to need only look at the opening volley of lawsuits stemming from last year’s Marigold Fire.

When property is in private hands, it is an asset to the community; not only does it provide value to the community via market forces (it can provide goods – including housing – and services demanded by the community) but also provides revenue to local governments in the form of property and sales taxes. When private property is claimed for public use or benefit, an asset that provided resources to the public is instantaneously converted to a public liability that consumes resources in the acquisition, debt servicing, liability and compliance aspects of these properties.

In an era of limited private investment and high government debt, why isn’t there more of a push to privatize some of this land?

Brian Thiemer is chairman of the Solano County Libertarian Party. He can be reached at [email protected]

Brian Thiemer


Discussion | 3 comments

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  • FDCJune 22, 2014 - 7:40 am

    When Texas joined the Union it was done by treaty between two sovereign nations. As part of the treaty, Texas very wisely retained title to all its public lands. As a result the Feds now own only four percent (4%) of Texas land while the Feds own most of open land in most of the Western states. Just another reason that Texas thrives while California doesn't.

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  • Mr. SmithJune 22, 2014 - 8:04 am

    The feds are eyeing about 90,000 acres of Texas land up on the Texas-Oklahoma border. Looks like they want to increase that 4% figure. Public access to millions of acres in the western US is being rapidly taken away by this administration's policies. If Mr. Thiemer is correct in his analysis of the economic effect of government property acquisition, that can't be good for the country. No surprises there, however.

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  • PornacJune 22, 2014 - 7:43 am

    Lots of public land getting mined, drilled and fracked. Some PA state forests getting fracked and poisoned. Because corporations are about profit and not for future Americans.

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