Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Where's Robin Hood When We Need Him?

Last Thursday, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced that the federal government will be spending 41.6 million dollars to purchase 20,000 acres of private land to add to the national forests.  The purchases were from "willing sellers" and were financed through offshore drilling fees paid by private companies into the Land and Water Conservation Fund.  The fund caps annually at $900 million and is used by the U.S. Forest Service to finance land acquisitions and by other agencies as well. 

Among the purchases was 1288 acres of land owned by the Fleming family for over 100 years which is surrounded by national forest.  One of the news sources I checked for this post featured a breathtaking photo of this property--which had been used as a Fleming family retreat.  The property, which abounds with oak, pine and Douglas fir, is adjacent to the Pacific Crest Rail and the San Jacinto Wilderness. The Forest Service has promised to thin the trees to minimize fire danger and "promote carbon sequestration."

Also among the purchases, the Forest Service is paying $1.4 million to finish purchasing 1,481 acres of land which had previously been marketed for vacation home sites along the Imnaha  River in Oregon.  This land will be added to the Hells Canyon National Recreation area and the Wallows-Whitman National Forest. Still other purchases will be used to protect salmon habitat, preserve ancient petroglyphs and conserve meadows and wetlands, protect migration corridors for wolves, grizzly bears, and other wildlife and to achieve various other eco-friendly outcomes.  The acquisition also included $800,000 to purchase land to "fill a doughnut hole of private land within the Shasta-Trinity National Recreation Area on the shore of Lake Shasta that could be developed as a subdivision." (CBS News)

The federal government's move is being widely criticized by some conservatives and libertarians as a waste of money--how does the federal government justify spending 41 million dollars to buy up private land when the country is massively in debt.  And I think that this is a fair criticism.  But I think that there are other issues at play here as well.

Currently, the U.S. government owns about 30% of the land in this country.  None of that land is available for development, for housing, or for any other private use.  Don't misunderstand--I think the national forest system is a good thing--in moderation.  Whenever I can escape the heat and dust of El Paso, I take 2 hours to drive up to Ruidoso, New Mexico where I enjoy the Lincoln National Forest.  I agree that our country needs beautiful public places where families can camp and picnic and all of us, regardless of socioeconomic status, can enjoy all that our country has to offer.  

Having said that, I also think that we have enough of these public spaces as it is.  Like it or not, development stimulates the economy.  The purchase of the 1481 acres in Oregon will "open public access to thousands of acres of public lands that are home to Oregon's largest herd of Rocky Mountain big horn sheep [and] also provides habitat for rare plants and birds," according to CBS News.  The economy in Oregon might get stronger if instead of spending every resource on preventing development, the federal, state and local governments would open up this breathtaking state to developers who would build houses that could in turn be sold to people with money who would then bring that money into the economy in Oregon.  Instead, we are curtaining off more and more property for the exclusive ownership of the federal government and the exclusive benefit of the wildlife residing on it. 

Because of the way that our country sprang up, many Americans do not understand what a privilege private property rights really are.  Likewise, they do not see the dangers to liberty of the government owning too much of the land.  But government control of the forest and protections of animals living on it is the very stuff of the Robin Hood legend, where the bandit emerged to fight for the common man against a system that called for the execution of men who hunted the king's deer.  And while the legends of Robin Hood and his battles with the tyrannical King John really are just that--legends--the facts are that private property rights were central to the early battles of the English people to obtain some freedom.  The Magna Carta--the document which King John's barons forced him to sign at Runny Mead in 1215--contains 5 clauses dealing with the rights of the people to access the forest.  Although the Magna Carta is popularly seen as a forerunner to our own system of laws, the property rights spelled out in the document were just the first shot in a long battle for the English people to win their rights to the forest.  In 1217, King Henry III signed the Charter of the Forest, which established rights of access to the Royal Forest for all "free men".  The Charter of the Forest was one of the first documents to grant real rights, privileges and protections for common men and to assert private property rights at a time when the king had claimed huge blocks of land as "Royal Forest" under the crown's protection.  The Charter of the Forest was reissued in 1225 and became part of the Confirmation of Charters in 1297.  It gave the people the right to use their own land within the forest as they saw fit, "provided that no injury is thereby given to any neighbor."  The Charter also repealed the death penalty for killing a deer in the Royal Forest and abolished mutilation as a punishment for illegal acts in the forest or against the forest animals.

The Charter of the Forest was so important to English law that it actually became the longest statue in force in England--from 1217-1971 when the final clauses of it that still remained in effect were replaced by the Wild Creatures and Forest Laws Act of 1971. 

If our government continues to expand its ownership of forest lands and its protections of the animals living in the forest, we may need to get a copy of the Charter of the Forest as a guide to spell out our own rights and protections with regard to access to the land. And if, after we have drawn up our own charter, our government won't acknowledge our rights, we might just need to enlist the help of our own modern day Robin Hood.

Alexandra Swann is the author of No Regrets: How Homeschooling Earned me a Master's Degree at Age Sixteen. For more information, visit her website at Frontier 2000.

1 comment:

  1. The government will do whatever they wanted to do. It's sad but it's reality. No Robin Hood is gonna rescue us from this one.