When Buying Land Does Not Grow National Parks

The Trump administration released a document that has been called his budget proposal. Technically, it is not a budget proposal. It is also not really a budget, because it makes no mention of about two-thirds of federal spending. This fact has been misleadingly reported as the administration deciding to “not touch entitlements” like Social Security and Medicare. That’s not quite true, because the document just says nothing at all about them.

By skipping that $2+ trillion in spending, the Trump administration successfully shifted attention to discretionary programs. The Trump short proposal is actually very simple. It increases defense and homeland security spending (the wall Mexico is not going to pay for included). To avoid increasing the amount the government already overspends each year, it cuts funding to a few agencies conservatives tend to dislike (the EPA and State Department) and slew of already tiny programs. It does nothing to address the national debt (to give Director Mulvaney credit, he actually said this in his OMB press conference) – but remember, it is not a budget because it doesn’t say how much the government intends to spend, in total. (Recall that candidate Trump promised to reduce the national debt to $0 after 8 years in office.) Instead, it proposes a series of budget cuts to pay for a spending increase that will primarily benefit defense contractors.

One of those cuts is the elimination of funding for federal land acquisition. Here is the exact wording from the document:

Reduces funding for lower priority activities in the National Forest System, such as major new Federal land acquisition; instead, the Budget focuses on maintaining existing forests and grasslands. (11)

Reduces funding for lower priority activities, such as new major acquisitions of Federal land. The Budget reduces land acquisition funding by more than $120 million from the 2017 annualized CR level and would instead focus available discretionary funds on investing in, and maintaining, existing national parks, refuges and public lands. (27)

It will not surprise many that both of these statements are very misleading. If you read that, you might think the Federal government routinely buys land to expand the boundaries of national parks. The government is in $20 trillion of debt. National parks and monuments have over $12 billion in needed maintenance that legislators have been kicking down the road for years. So it would be reasonable to conclude that we ought to stop expanding the parks and instead (as the document suggests) take care of what we already have.

As the title of this post suggests, that simple narrative is false. When the government buys land for national parks, it’s often buying land already inside national parks. That’s because when Congress and the President designates land for parks and monuments, the government usually doesn’t own all the land inside. There are thousands of privately owned pockets of land in national parks, with dramatic variation across parks. As of 2016, about 225 acres of Yosemite’s 750,00 acres are privately owned. There are roughly 3,500 privately-owned acres in Zion (of 140,000), and 23,000 in Texas’ Big Bend (of 775,000). You can look at the variation yourself here.

It is also important to note that when the government buys this land, it pays full price. The designation of a national park does not allow the government to seize land at below market rates (the kind of thing that will be required when and if money is allocated to build Trump’s border wall). Land owners must consent to sell. But in some cases, acquiring this land is important – as it prevents future development by land owners. Put differently, “maintaining existing national parks” sometimes means buying land inside them. Cutting this already slim line item does not benefit the public. It benefits land owners who would like to develop real estate investments while taxpayers subsidize the serene qualities of their surrounding landscape.

There is another major problem with the cost-saving narrative supplied by the administration. Land acquisitions by these agencies are not taxpayer funded. To repeat, the funds typically allocated for land acquisition cost the American taxpayer nothing. When energy companies lease offshore lands for drilling, the earnings are deposited into the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) – which provides the capital spent to acquire land.

The Trump administration claims that its discretionary spending proposals have been made with fiscal responsibility and the taxpayer in mind. I don’t think it is bad to have an OMB Director who thinks of the budget as the government spending other peoples’ money. But in this case, and several others, that narrative is a complete farce. They are not saving money. They are not trying to shrink the deficit. They are not trying to be more responsible. They have a policy agenda. In this case, that agenda is, in part, to keep as much federally-protected land in private hands as possible.

 

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