President Obama last month released his $3 trillion-plus fiscal 2012 budget proposal. It's difficult to describe such massive spending, coupled with about $1 trillion in borrowing, as austere, but the president has hopes that his blueprint will bring spending in line with revenues within 10 years -- as long as you ignore $600 billion in interest payments.
It would be easy, then, to overlook one relatively small program in the Department of Interior budget. The president wants to double federal spending on land and water conservation, allocating $900 million to buy up private land for conservation and recreation purposes.
The initiative largely incorporates existing programs under a new name, "America's Great Outdoors." The president says it's important to conserve public lands, even in tough economic times. He says the program will encourage more Americans to enjoy the outdoors.
That sounds pretty benign. Buying up land adjacent to national parks and national forests seems like a great idea to many Americans. But what most Americans don't know is that the U.S. government is already the largest single landowner in the United States.
The National Park Service, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Reclamation hold more than 500 million acres that are already set aside for conservation and recreation. That doesn't count vast tracks generally off limits to the public held by the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy and other assorted agencies.
In the West, federal tracts are huge and play a significant role in the economies of rural areas. Federal land can be a blessing and a curse. Ranchers and loggers depend on federal lands for their livelihoods, but face far more restrictive and unpredictable regulations than when they operate on private land.
So do we really need to take more land out of private, productive hands and off the property tax rolls? We don't think so. While the president says his plan is budget neutral, paid for with cuts elsewhere, it seems like an unnecessarily expensive land grab.
That's not the only reason to be skeptical.
U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, is worried that the administration could use the program to further restrict ranching and timber production.
"The word 'conservation' should not be wielded as a broad, overriding excuse to restrict or prohibit Americans' access to their public lands for pleasure, sport, jobs or better quality of life," he told The Associated Press.