We know an election must be approaching because President Clinton was recently back at the Grand Canyon proclaiming the establishment of four new national monuments. He did this before the 1996 election by establishing the controversial 1.7-million-acre Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument in Utah. Now he is calling on Congress to authorize spending nearly $1 billion a year to fund his Land Legacy Initiative, of which $500 million would purchase new federal lands.
Most polls show Americans want conservation. But there is little evidence to suggest that the federal land agencies have provided this, and adding more land to the federal estate is definitely not the solution.
First consider how much land the federal government already controls. As of 1960, the Forest Service, Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Service controlled one-third of the nation's land–nearly 630 million acres. Since 1960 another 33 million acres, an area the size of Florida, have been purchased or traded for by the federal government. That growth averages 860,000 acres each year for the past forty years, or an area the size of Rhode Island added every year. Nine million acres were added in the 1990s, including twenty-five new units for the National Park Service. Despite these increases, Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope says that, "a major increase in federal funding for land acquisition has long been needed."
Perhaps acquisitions would be justified if the federal government's conservation track record were good, but it is not. Study after study by the Government Accounting Office and private research organizations shows that the federal government has been a poor steward of its lands. One-third of the national forests are at known risk of uncontrollable wildfire, insect infestation, or both. In national parks, automobile pollution creates haze problems, antiquated sewage facilities spill raw sewage into pristine meadows and trout streams, and poor road maintenance creates safety hazards. Scientists rate the majority of federal grazing lands to be in less than fair condition.
This poor management cannot be blamed on a lack of budgets. Whereas the federal estate has increased 6 percent since 1960, inflation-adjusted administrative budgets have risen a whopping 262 percent. Management that cost taxpayers $3 an acre in 1962 costs an inflation-adjusted $10 an acre in 1997.
Increasing spending to purchase more land for the federal agencies is not the path to conservation. The Congressional Budget Office concluded in a 1999 report that "land management agencies should improve their stewardship of the land they already own before taking on additional management responsibilities." Recent studies by the Political Economy Research Center show that state land managers have a much better fiscal and environmental track record and that private land trusts effectively manage more than 18 million acres for conservation. Relying more on states and on the private sector is the best path to a conservation legacy, not spending another $1 billion a year to accelerate the federal land grab.