The Senate this week will take up the Great American Outdoors Act, which would require the federal government to spend at least $900 million each year to increase the already sizable amount of land it owns and controls in the United States.
These real estate acquisitions would be made through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is supported by revenue that the federal government obtains by selling the right to explore for and produce oil and natural gas in the coastal waters of the United States.
This bill is a bad idea.
First, it would create a steady and required stream of taxpayer money to fund federal land purchases each year. It has long been a goal of national environmentalists to have the federal government control as much land as possible. Environmentalists based in New York and Washington believe that the world would be a better place if they and their allies in the federal government made all the decisions about land use in the United States.
Consequently, it’s no surprise that the legislation is primarily supported by those on the left: 44 of the 59 co-sponsors are Democrats, and that list includes Sens. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer. This overwhelming Democratic support is odd, given that the legislation relies on revenue from oil and natural gas production, which is something that Democrats would like to destroy entirely. In this instance, however, they are willing to ignore that goal to ensure greater federal ownership of land. That should tell you something about how valuable the legislation is to the left and how dangerous it is to the rest of us.
The federal government already owns almost 30% of the land in the United States. It seems egregious and unwise to give it a reliable source of taxpayer money to buy even more.
Second, the legislation would cheat coastal states. They, more than other states, have a rightful and equitable claim to that revenue. They are partners with the federal government in ensuring that proper and appropriate exploration for and production of energy — energy that makes the U.S. more prosperous and more resilient to the vagaries of the international energy markets – takes place. They deserve to be treated like partners.
More disturbingly, the legislation would transfer wealth from bright red coastal states — Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi — to blue states. The principal beneficiaries of one part of the legislation are California, New York and Washington.
At a bare minimum, the legislation should be amended to ensure that coastal states receive a substantial share of the revenue generated from the energy development occurring off their shores. We should all be concerned with the economic sustainability of a region that produces and creates much of our energy.
Third, the legislation damages taxpayers. It is not free. The revenues from coastal energy development now go into the general fund. If those revenues are diverted to land acquisition, the shortfall would be made up by taxpayers. These are not trivial sums. Taxpayers would pay almost a billion dollars a year so that the government can buy more land.
The legislation does include one salutary approach. Part of it would require the federal government to address the maintenance needs — projects amounting to $12 billion are awaiting action — on the land it already owns. This is smart and good stewardship. Including the maintenance backlog highlights the obvious problem — the federal government owns more land than it can properly manage. The answer is not to buy more land. It is to take care of what land the government already has.
The Senate should address and solve — not exacerbate — the maintenance backlog. At the same time, it should shelve more federal land acquisition and work out a way to make the coastal states true, complete and equitable partners in the energy development that helps drive the United States economy.
• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, is the president of MWR Strategies. He was most recently a deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.
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