Commentary

Why Trump Must Veto the Federal Land Grab Bill

Stephen Moore
By Stephen Moore | March 5, 2019 | 9:01 AM EST

MIAMI, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 18: President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at Florida International University on February 18, 2019 in Miami, Florida. President Trump spoke about the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

President Trump gave one of his most memorable and impactful speeches two weeks ago, when he systematically dismantled the case for socialism. In that speech, he recalled the economic harm and destruction in nations that have adopted socialism, communism or Stalinism. "America will never be a socialist country," Trump pledged in his speech in Florida.

Well said. And the first big step that Trump could take in preventing any slippery slide in that direction would be to veto the Land and Water Conservation Fund bill, which enables the federal government to spend billions to purchase millions of acres of private lands for "conservation." What? Uncle Sam is going to take out of private hands millions more acres of America's valuable landmass? This is the reverse of privatization — it is the nationalization of our nation's farmland, forests, streams and pastures.

I am told by House Republican Policy Committee Chairman Gary Palmer that this land grab was a high priority of the anti-growth environmental groups that oppose further development in the Western states — where most of this land would be seized. Amazingly, a Republican-controlled Senate approved the federal land grab with little debate, and the House under Speaker Nancy Pelosi snuck the bill through with virtually no debate at all. It's a good bet almost none of the House or Senate members read this 700-page bill.

According to an analysis by Rep. Garret Graves, R.-La., and an expert on natural resource issues, the bill "permanently authorizes $9 billion per decade for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) to acquire new federal and state lands." My Heritage Foundation colleague Nick Loris reports that the Department of the Interior already has a $16 billion maintenance backlog on the lands the government already owns but can't take care of. At its core, this legislation violates a central and common-sense principle of the Republican Party and its fight against the Democrats' ongoing "War on the West." That principle dating back to the Newt Gingrich years is simple: Congress shall allow no net loss of private property to the feds. For every acre the government plans to purchase or simply seize, it must sell off at least one acre in return.

The federal land holdings are already gargantuan, with almost one-third owned by the government and with half of the land in the Western states owned by Uncle Sam. In Nevada and Utah, the government owns almost two-thirds of the land. President Obama nationalized millions of additional federal lands — and though Republicans whined, they did little to stop him.

How depressing it would be if Donald Trump — who has been rightly critical of the Obama land grabs — were to launch a new federal land-purchasing program on his watch? One common justification for federal land ownership is to preserve these properties with national significance for future generations. But the federal government has proved over the last 30 years that it is an atrocious protector of our forests and wildlife. The feds have let millions of acres of federal lands be destroyed through awful land management and even "let it burn" policies during forest fires.

But there is another even more important reason Trump should veto this spending bill. It would take royalty payments from valuable oil and gas drilling leases and use those funds for the government's land purchasing scheme.

This would short-circuit a plan that Rep. Palmer has proposed. He smartly wants to devote potentially trillions of dollars raised from the leases to pay for a massive infrastructure bill. We need more roads and bridges, new pipelines and better ports. And an ingenious way to pay for them is through leases. Two new studies from the Committee to Unleash Prosperity estimate that the net value of drilling and mining on federal lands and waters could reach $3 to $5 trillion over the next 30 years. That money could pay for a lot of roads, airports, pipelines, bridges and fiber-optic cables to connect America — and without having to charge taxpayers a single penny.

I would wager to bet that President Trump has no idea this land socialism is tucked inside a bill that he is expected to sign. Don't do it, Mr. President. Fight against land-grab socialism, and fund your coveted infrastructure plan by charging fair value leases on drilling and mining. If there were ever a bill that deserves Donald Trump's first veto, it is this one.

Stephen Moore is a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation and an economic consultant with FreedomWorks. He is the co-author of "Trumponomics: Inside the America First Plan to Revive the American Economy."

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