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The Spectre of Privatization: Land exchanges, sales, and giveaways

“The house of America is founded upon our land and if we keep that whole, then the storm can rage, but the house will stand forever.”
– Lyndon B. Johnson

The public domain includes over 600 million acres of land designated as National Parks, National Forests, National Monuments, National Conservation Areas, Wilderness Areas, Wilderness Study Areas, Wild and Scenic Rivers, National Scenic and Historic Trails, Wild Lands and more. Far from having permanent protected status, these public lands are continually imperiled by the prospect of privatization. The federal land management agencies may trade away or sell our public lands, and Congress has the power to trade, sell, or even give them away.

The federal agencies responsible for most public land deals, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM), do exchanges of land with private parties, including timber companies, mining corporations, ranchers, and developers. Every year, these two agencies alone complete about 200 such transactions. The trades may involve a few small parcels, or tens of thousands of acres.

By law, agency land trades must meet two basic criteria: the two sides must get lands of equal market value, and the exchange must create a net benefit for the public— in ecological, recreational, aesthetic, or other value. But the appraisal process can be corrupted and the public interest is all too often ignored.  For years, the Forest Service was trading lushly forested lands to timber companies in exchange for the cut-over, damaged land the companies had already exploited. The BLM has traded away untold thousands of acres of rich desert lands that are habitat for the desert tortoise, peninsular big horn sheep, and countless other threatened plant and animal species. Far from being the “win-win” deals expounded by the agencies and the private parties, there are devils in the details.

And while the land agencies sometimes break the rules, something entirely different goes on in the U.S. Congress, where members are free to wheel, deal, carve up, and give away public lands with no regulations to hinder them. Frequently, the bottom line is the direct, pragmatic opportunity to reward friends or curry political favor through the gift of public land.

At the larger scale, Congress or the Executive Branch may propose aggressive measures to dispose of public land. In the early 1980s, Reagan’s Interior Secretary, James Watt, proposed that vast tracts of public land be sold to offset the country’s deficit – an effort that was eventually abandoned thanks to widespread citizen outcry. More recently, in late 2005, anti-environmental members of Congress unsuccessfully brought out a host of schemes to sell off public lands—again using the deficit, but also post-Hurricane Katrina costs, to justify cashing out tracts in National Forests, National Parks, and other “vacant” lands of the public domain.

Western Lands Project alone is focused on the arcane yet critically important issue of public land privatization and we’ll continue to fight whatever future threats to the public domain arise.

Our Latest Newsletter

Western Lands Update, Volume 19, Number 2


Blaeloch in the New York Times • Protecting the desert in southwest Utah • Boulder-White Clouds wilderness • US Army helicopter training in Wilderness

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