Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Despite the howls of some, the feds should keep all their western land

Open in perpetuity or a future suburb?
You may have heard about a local push to have the federal government relinquish its large land holdings in the west. While I'll detail this group more below, by way of general background, the federal government owns over half of the total land in Nevada, Utah, Idaho, and Oregon. Around the west in general, federal land holdings are much higher than they are in the east, largely because the attitude toward land management changed as these western states gained their statehood in the late 1800s. Think Teddy Roosevelt and the birth of the national park system. But the change in land use policies during this period wasn’t necessarily seen as an environmental movement. Here’s Vox:
"In the 1890s, there was a huge concern about the prospect of a timber famine, and timber was every bit as important to the national economy as fossil fuels are now," [James] McCarthy says. It was the main building material, was critical for railroads and mining, and was used as a primary fuel source in many places. "People said we absolutely have to have a reliable steady supply of timber, and we clearly can't trust private interests to do that, so we'd better have the federal government do it."
As a result, the US government decided around 1891 to start holding onto most of the federal lands it still had. And most of those lands were in the West — because it was the last main region to be settled.
Fast forward to today. Ken Ivory, a Utah legislator, is heading up a movement (via the American Lands Council, or ALC) to push the federal government to cede these large land holdings back the states, where he says they rightly belong. Ivory's website points out the legal path forward and highlights occasions when such transfers have happened in the past. What he fails to do is convincingly explain how this would help the average Utahn. Since I'm not a lawyer, I'll stay away from the legal implications and will instead focus on whether this switch in ownership would actually solve any real problems. Primarily I’ll highlight and comment on the so-called problems this land swap would fix as noted in his Key Points and video.

1. One of the main reasons for this land transfer, according to Ivory’s website, is because the states would do a better job of environmental stewardship than the federal government. In the video, millions of dead animals and forest fires are mentioned as being of grave concern to Ivory's movement. Really? Hmm. Elsewhere on the website, Ivory shows excitement about the extra revenue this state-owned land would bring in via property taxes. The fact that this is mentioned alongside his passion for better environmental stewardship is odd. Either say the state needs the money, or that the land is currently being poorly managed for future generations. Selling off half of it to private interests while better managing the public forests on the half that remains wouldn't make the forests or the squirrels better off in aggregate. The kind of wilderness that most benefits forests and animals is the kind that's vast and left alone.

The fact that Ivory includes “millions of dead animals” and forest fires on his list of reasons (for the transfer) lends a sort of grab-baggy feel to it. Perhaps he realizes there aren't just a few important, convincing arguments for the change?

If Ivory (and local legislators) want to raise more money, they should raise what are called Pigovian taxes to discourage socially harmful behavior, thus killing two birds with one stone.
  1. Raise gas taxes, both to better fund public transit, subsidize state-wide Hive Passes, and maintain roads.
  2. Implement congestion pricingLondon and Singapore, for example, have done this successfully for years. The US loves using the market to make sure there are no bread or ipad shortages, so why not use it to assure there aren't road space shortages?
  3. Tax pollution; even if you don't believe in global warming, air pollution kills 94k people in North America each year. Yes, business would complain, but currently corporate profits are flush and these doesn't appear to be the kind of business Utah wants to attract anyhow (note the focus on the Silicon Slopes area).
  4. Switch from a property tax to a true land tax, which would raise much more money than the property tax and have the added benefit of encouraging people to build on geographically important land (ie, near city centers), rather than letting it sit vacant. Call it a funding/sprawl solver.
By implementing these kinds of policies, Utah would not only reduce sprawl, but also be able to cut its tax rate on personal income and corporate earnings, which would likely get a lot of GOP support and be a more sensible way to bring higher incomes and more economic growth to Utah (compared with vast land swaps).

2) Ivory mentions wanting the land swap in order to bolster small towns across Utah. While, the American idyll of a living on farm or in a small town still remains, few Utahns still live like that. In fact, the population outside of the Wasatch Front and the St George area accounts for only ~15% of Utahns (via Wikipedia calculations). Small towns and remote communities offer lower wages, fewer economic opportunities, and pollute much more per capita than metropolitan areas. While people should certainly be able to live wherever they can rent or buy a house, I'm not sure society should encourage people to move to such low-wage parts of the state. If anything, we should encourage people to move to more productive areas.

3) Somewhat strangely, one of Ivory’s main justifications for this land transfer is because he’s worried about the federal government’s finances. Apparently, selling off much of this private land will make it so Utah can tell the feds to take a hike? (You’ll notice here that currently Utah is a net taker from the federal government.) What people don’t generally realize is the fact that the government isn’t having any sort of debt crisis. First piece of evidence: the yield on a 10 year Treasury Bond is 2.59%. Does that sound like the interest rate you’d charge someone who is a credit risk? See here for more on this.

Overall, Mr Ivory doesn't really come up with good reasons why we should transfer federally owned land into the hands of the Utah government. Some of the problems he’s trying to solve don’t really exist, and the problems he mentions that are actually problems can be solved in much easier ways. The loser in keeping the status quo? Those “millions” of scared animals trying to make a life under federal control on all that empty space in southern Utah.

Note: A few real problems to be solved in this country include the following: 1) stagnating wages for half the population; 2) housing is increasingly unaffordable; 3) even after the ACA, 30 million people won't have health insurance, 4) 5 million people currently don't have health insurance because the GOP politicians in certain states won't expand Medicaid, even though their residents are paying taxes for it 5) our infrastructure isn't being maintained, 6) our immigration policies are insane, 7) ~30,000 people die in traffic accidents each year; 8) global warming isn't going away; 9) tuition expenses are growing like mad; 10) network neutrality is at serious risk; and 11) health care cost growth is still too high.

Also note: I'd love to hear from anyone who has any thoughts on the land swap. This is meant to start a discussion, not end it. My views are subject to change.

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