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Testimony of Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D.
Before the
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee
Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests
"The Highlands Conservation Act"
366 Senate Dirksen Office Building
March 24, 2004

 

Good afternoon, my name is Bonner Cohen. I am a senior fellow with The National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C. and a member of the Board of Directors of the American Policy Center in Warrenton, Virginia. I want to thank Chairman Craig and the other members of the subcommittee for the opportunity to comment on the "Highlands Conservation Act," H.R. 1964.

I believe the legislation under consideration by this subcommittee is flawed in several key respects. At a fundamental level, it equates government ownership of land with conservation, an idea our Founding Fathers would have found amusing, to say the least. At least 40 percent of the land area of the United States is owned by government — federal, state, and local. Much of this land is poorly managed — from overgrown, disease-ridden national forests that routinely spawn catastrophic wildfires, to national parks that are in such a state of disrepair that the Park Service estimates it will take $5 billion and many years to undo the damage. To set aside more hard-earned taxpayer dollars for additional land acquisitions, in the name of conservation, is to ignore the disastrous environmental consequences of the already bloated public estate.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what the Highlands Conservation Act does. The bill will increase the size of the public estate in the Highlands region. In doing so, it will pose a severe threat to the rights and livelihoods of property owners in the targeted area. While the bill gives property owners the right to decline selling their lands, this "willing-seller" provision is illusory. In the real world, there is no such thing as a "willing seller."

In the case of the Highlands Conservation Act, "non-federal entities," also known as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), with a clear political agenda will identify lands for "management" and will oversee the ensuing conservation actions. Few landowners will be able to withstand the pressure of environmental groups working in concert with state and local governments, eager to acquire private lands with taxpayer money. As the public estate in the region grows, the value of adjacent private lands will diminish. And, as property values decline, landowners will have little choice but to sell their land at a fraction of its former worth.

Furthermore, the removal of private land from the tax roles will have a devastating effect on local revenues. Raising property taxes on the remaining private lands will be the only way local governments can make up the revenue short-fall. This, in turn, could force additional landowners to sell their property to the government.

We are told that the bill will cost $100 million, to be disbursed in $10 million increments between 2005 and 2014. But there is nothing in the bill that prevents Congress from continuing appropriations beyond 2014. Similarly, the scope of the bill is currently limited to some 2 million acres in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. But there is nothing in the legislation to keep the area from being expanded to include highland areas in, say, Maryland and Vermont. In fact, the bill grants the U.S. Forest Service the right to continue land assessments studies and provides $1 million toward that end. As such, the legislation is an open-ended invitation for government and its carefully selected "partners" to lock up more land.

Indeed, equally disturbing is the cozy relationship the Highlands Conservation Act envisages between government and certain NGOs. The governors of the four states currently covered under the bill will identify lands in the Highlands region for management, based on recommendations made by state and local environmental organizations. These suggestions will then be forwarded to officials at the Departments of Interior and Agriculture for review, who will submit final recommendations to Congress for the purpose of appropriating the 50 percent federal share of matching funds.

Once this process has been completed, the NGOs will set about overseeing and managing the lands they themselves played a large part in identifying. As a sign of just how cozy the relationship is between the NGOs and the various government entities involved in the Highlands Conservation Act, one of these groups, the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, is specifically cited in the bill.

Allowing these organizations — elected by no one and accountable to no one — to join forces with friendly state regulators supported by federal funds and impose land-use restrictions on unsuspecting property owners makes a travesty of representative democracy. While the bill keeps federal bureaucrats largely out of the land-management decisions, is simply replaces them with state regulators and allied environmental groups. To the landowner, this is a distinction without a difference.

At a time of skyrocketing budget deficits at the federal, state, and local level, using scarce taxpayer dollars to acquire more land — taking it out of productive use and removing it from the tax rolls — makes no economic sense. The key to an economically and environmentally vibrant rural America does not lie in government ownership of land. American agriculture leads the world not because the land is owned by the government and managed by politically favored NGOs, but because it is under the stewardship of farmers whose livelihoods depend on how they use and conserve their land.

The Highlands Conservation Act ignores this lesson. If enacted, it will be harmful for the people in the Highlands and their environment.

Thank you very much.

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