Op-Ed: Unsustainable Costs and Impacts of Government Land Acquisition

by Colter Brown

Opinion Editorial by Nathan Descheemaeker

The public land law review commission was a Congressional committee tasked with analyzing and reviewing the history of public land laws in the US and provide to congress a report which led to the codification of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act as well as other cornerstone statutes. At the outset of this report an important truth was pointed out. “Contrary to the traditions of sovereigns elsewhere in the world, the United State disposed of much of the land at nominal prices and encouraged private ownership” (PLLRC 1970).

Congressional resolutions in 1780, the Land Ordinance of 1784, and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 laid the foundation of intent that all such lands were to be disposed to create distinct republican states, extinguishing federal title/jurisdiction to the public lands held in trust. By the way these ordinances banned slavery and indentured servitude in the new territories before the federal constitution was even adopted (1789).

What separates the United States from most systems through human history is the concept of the sovereignty of the individual over and against the state, directly linked to private ownership of property. “What our generation has forgotten,” Fredrich Hayek said in his 1944 Nobel Prize-winning classic, The Road to Serfdom, “is that the system of private property is the most important guaranty of freedom, not only for those who own property, but scarcely less for those who do not. It is only because the control of the means of production is divided among many people acting independently that nobody has complete power over us, that we as individuals can decide what to do with ourselves.”

We do not have to speculate regarding the impacts and unsustainable nature of government land acquisition which in the last 40 years has become a multi-billion-dollar business for land trusts, special interest NGOs, and the federal and state governments, while the hard-working tax-payer foots the bill in perpetuity. Washington State for example is much farther down this path than we are. In 2011 the Okanagan County Farm Bureau published a comprehensive report entitled the Unsustainable Costs and Impacts of Government Land Acquisition. The conclusion of this report states:

“Common threads tie Okanogan County to controversial “ecosystem” approaches to acquire private lands. Call it ecosystem management, landscape conservation, eco-regions, ecological systems, the Wildlands Project, wildlife corridors, Yukon to Yellowstone (Y2Y), international/transborder projects, corridors, or any number of names, it’s all the same with a different twist. They all are part of the large-scale system used by state and federal agencies, special interest environmental groups, and land trusts to take land out of private ownership. . .”

“All these processes swallow up multiple county and state jurisdictions and reach across state and national borders with the sole focus on fish and wildlife. Private land, private land rights, family farms and ranches, communities, customs, cultures, economic stability and the freedom inherent in private ownership of land all take a back seat to the quest for agency ownership and control of private land and water in the name of the environment.”

“Sole-purpose agencies and agenda-driven special interest environmental groups have been in the driver’s seat long enough. Continued government land acquisitions are unsustainable in terms of continuing loss of productive private lands and mounting cost burdens imposed on citizens. To continue on this path would ensure detrimental economic impacts to citizens, counties and the state.”


“Elected officials need to have full and accurate accounting in order to make informed policy and budget decisions and to provide the needed checks to balance the agencies’ sole-purpose agendas. Unfortunately, agency reporting that has been reviewed is not designed to be accountable or to inform but to sell the benefits of their acquisition programs to continue the funding. . .”

Land acquisition schemes in central and eastern Montana are championing access as the pitch to the general public. Back Country Conservation Areas, LWCF funds, National Fish and Wildlife Grant program, Habitat Montana, and many other programs all call for the removal of land from private ownership and control. If special interest groups, hunting groups, and land trusts are so concerned about hunting and recreational access why are they not spending their time and resources addressing the closing of over 20,000 miles of access roads by the Forest Service in western Montana. Private property is labelled as the problem for access, even though government, despite its appeal for access is restricting access.

According to a Study by the Environmental Quality Council on the loss of access to our public lands that has occurred since 1995, ‘in the executive summary on page 1 of the report you will see the Forest Service has closed an astounding 21,951 miles of roads on land they manage in Montana. Each and every one of these roads was important for recreation and management of this land. In Montana our population demographics show an ageing population. With this increase in age comes a greater need and desire for some type of mechanized and motorized transport in order to recreate on our public lands’ (White, 2018). These people have been cut off from these lands. We cannot manage, let alone recreate on huge expanses of federal lands in the state, not because of private property standing in the way but systematic closure and removal of access routes by our government.

Thank you, Attorney General Austin Knudson, for making this stand against the unending government acquisition of private lands. Our first President George Washington said, “Real patriots will resist intrigues, while dupes will surrender to interests.” And further he exhorted “Be guided by principles, not interests.” You have my vote. Sadly, many people don’t speak out as they ought to because they don’t want to be identified with some odd ball group that happens to believe some of the same things as they do, but I can testify that people are tired of unending growth of government bureaucracy, I feel it in their handshakes, and I see it in their eyes. Private Property is the cornerstone of our country, we lose private property, we lose our country.

“The Founders recognized that the protection of private property is indispensable to the promotion of individual freedom. As John Adams tersely put it, ‘[p]roperty must be secured, or liberty cannot exist.’ Discourses on Davila, in 6 Works of John Adams 280 (C. Adams ed. 1851). This Court agrees, having noted that protection of property rights is ‘necessary to preserve freedom’ and ‘empowers persons to shape and to plan their own destiny in a world where governments are always eager to do so for them.’” Cedar Point Nursery et al., v. Hassid et al. No. 20–107. June 23, 2021

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Nathan Descheemaeker and his family raise registered feeder calves in Montana, and he is a Senior Research Specialist and Policy Analyst specializing in federal and local government administrative procedures, land and natural resource policymaking, local governmental relations, and program management.

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