'Land Grab' Opponents Cry Foul in House Hearing
By Pat Taylor
CNSNews.com Correspondent
June 25, 2001

(CNSNews.com) - As legislation moves through Congress guaranteeing the transfer of billions of dollars worth of private land to the federal government, opponents complain they were barred from testifying against the bill.

They also question claims that the new legislation would provide more protection for private property rights than existing legislation does.

Of the nine witnesses heard at the June 20 House Resources Committee hearing on the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA), only one witness was invited to testify against the act, which would guarantee $47 billion in federal funds over the next 15 years for the acquisition of private land and other government projects.

Private property rights advocates refer to CARA as the "Land Grab Bill." They believe it is the biggest threat to private property rights since the Endangered Species Act.

Committee spokesperson Marnie Funk said the only person whose request to speak at last week's hearing was turned down was Charles Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association.

According to Funk, Cushman was turned down because he had testified in 2000 and his views were well known to the committee. Funk said that the intent of the hearing was to gather new points of view from people who have not testified before.

But at least two witnesses heard last week, Utah's Emery County Commissioner Randy Johnson and Louisiana Department of Natural Resources Secretary Jack C. Caldwell, said that they, like Cushman, testified during last year's CARA hearings.

In addition, Robert J. Smith, a private property rights expert with the conservative Washington, D.C.-based Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), said his group wrote to request that he and another CEI representative be allowed to testify.

Smith said CEI received a "thanks, but no thanks" reply from the Committee Chairman James Hansen (R-Utah). Smith speculated that other organizations were also turned down.

Smith called the hearing a "Star Chamber" proceeding. He criticized Hansen and CARA's author, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) for calling witnesses that Smith claimed were carefully selected to stack the deck in favor of the legislation.

According to Smith, the government currently owns more than 42% of the nation's land, raising questions about whether government should own more.

"Where is the pressing need for additional government land acquisition?" he asked during a Senate committee hearing in 1999. "How much land do you intend ultimately for the government to own? How much is enough?"

The lone witness who was permitted to testify against the CARA bill last Wednesday was Patricia Callahan, president of the American Association of Small Property Owners.

Callahan spoke against the growing trend of the federal government taking more and more land out of the hands of private landowners.

She noted that the U.S. Constitution does not give the government the right to enter the real estate business, and she argued that that was the net result of CARA.

Callahan claimed that CARA would let "ideologues" decide what the owners' land should be used for rather than the owners of that land. "This is an outrage," Callahan said.

As a "textbook example" of her claim, Callahan cited the case of Klamath Basin, a region of the western U.S. that straddles the California-Oregon border.

Environmental activists and federal agencies have used the Endangered Species Act to prevent some 1,400 family farmers in the area from using their land to grow crops by cutting off the supply of irrigation water that's been used by local farmers for nearly a century.

Once the Klamath Basin farm land has lost its value, Callahan said farmers essentially will be forced to become "willing sellers" of their property, allowing groups like The Nature Conservancy to "save the day" by using CARA funds to purchase the land, often at below market rates.

Activist organizations already have proposed a buyout program in which hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars would be spent to purchase farmland and essentially eliminate farming in Klamath Basin.

Callahan had barely finished her testimony when she was challenged by Rep. W. J. Tauzin (R-La.), whose state stands to gain almost $5 billion if CARA becomes law.

"Do you know the current average yearly expenditure of the government to purchase private property?" Tauzin demanded.

Callahan responded that her point was not how much money was spent, but whether the government should be in the business of buying up private property.

Tauzin cut off her response. "Current law allows agencies to take land when they want it," said Tauzin. "Under CARA, they must have a willing seller, or else come to Congress for approval."

Tauzin also said CARA contains far more private property protections than current law.

Most of those protections are contained not in CARA itself, but in a companion bill called the Constitutional Land Acquisition Act. Rep. William Thornberry (R-Texas), who authored the accompanying bill, suggested that those protections could be added to existing law without passing CARA.

Questions were also raised about the amount of money dedicated to the government land purchase program.

Tauzin stated that the government currently spends an average of $540 million per year on private property purchases, and that CARA would cap the yearly expenditures at $450 million.

But those figures are somewhat misleading, according to the government's own data. The $450 million cited by Tauzin includes only money guaranteed for land purchases by the federal government.

According to data supplied by the U.S. Department of the Interior, an additional $450 million in federal money is guaranteed as a subsidy for states to also purchase private land.

Those states, in turn, contribute an additional $450 million to match their federal subsidy, making a grand total of $1.3 billion in combined state and federal tax money, according to the legislation.

Rep. C.L. "Butch" Otter (R-Idaho) suggested that instead of spending so much money to purchase more private property, Congress should use some of the money to take care of the at least $12 billion dollars in maintenance backlog that already exists on current public lands.

Some analysts have criticized government stewardship of land and accused it of mismanagement, claiming federally owned land often is not as well maintained as land owned by private citizens.

The pork barrel issue also surfaced, with some lawmakers questioning the value of projects paid for with CARA funding.

"CARA is so popular with so many groups because it has a little bit of something for everyone," said Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-Wyo.).

In addition to the land acquisition funds, $33.5 billion is earmarked for states to finance various wildlife conservation programs, urban parks, historic preservation, and "funding for landowner incentives to aid in the recovery of endangered and threatened species on private lands," according to the provisions of the bill.

What rankles many in Congress is the fact that except for the $6.75 billion guaranteed for federal land acquisitions, none of the funds would be subject to congressional oversight. The funds would go directly to the individual states, which could spend the funds as they please.

In addition, the money would be locked into a trust fund. This means that if some of the funds are not spent in a particular year, they will carry over and be added to the next year's allocation instead of going into the general fund, as is currently the case.

More than 220 House members have already signed onto CARA as co-sponsors. Young predicted that he will have 300 co-sponsors by the time the legislation comes to the floor of the House. The bill is expected to be voted out of the Resources Committee and sent to the House some time next month. Last year, CARA passed the House by a 315-102 vote, but it got bogged down in the Senate.


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