The Irony of “Public” Ownership

Relates to:
Date: 2002-08-23

By Jedd Medefind
Written for Assemblyman Tim Leslie
August 23, 2002

There was always a measure of irony to the public ownership of assets in the former Soviet Union. Although the State owned everything in trust for all citizens, rarely did any but Party elite enjoy the best of the land and its produce. Similar ironies show up under better governments as well, and clear guidelines for the way potential public lands will be administered must always be established prior to purchase if “public” is to really mean public.
Consider the current situation up near Eureka, California. In 1999, the federal government spent 480 million taxpayer dollars to buy 7,400 acres in what is called the Headwaters Forest. $65,000 per acre was no bargain—coming out to around $48 spent for each California family—but the pristine beauty was rightly deemed to be priceless.

Now that the land is publicly owned, however, it’s become harder than ever to visit. And if you do have interest in seeing your land, you’d better get up there soon. New management plans call for a prohibition on hiking in the Headwaters except on guided tours. Also forbidden will be horseback riding, bicycling, camping, campfires, and swimming. The one thing the plan does allow is a higher tour fee.

When pushing for public purchase of the Headwaters, environmental groups emphasized the importance of preserving the area for future generations…presumably so future generations could actually see and enjoy it. Sadly, as often occurs, now that the purchase has been made, the same groups are all too eager to lock the land away from its owners. The Bay Area Coalition for Headwaters recently announced full support for the new limits on access, with one further demand: a guarantee of no new trails.

Such actions and attitudes send chills down the spine of those of us who believe public lands actually do belong to the public.
They also hint at the dangers inherent in every new purchase of public lands. When asking taxpayers to pony up for more public real estate, supporting groups work overtime printing glossy photos of camping families, mountain bikers, and elderly people enjoying a hike. It’s only after the deal is sealed that production starts on the “Keep Out” signs.

Moving closer to home, two major bills pending in Washington and Sacramento could profoundly impact ownership and use of lands in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

At the federal level, a measure by U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer would reclassify millions of acres of public lands as “wilderness” in attempt to further restrict public access to them. Only the elite—in this case, hearty backpackers—would be allowed on vast expanses of public land currently enjoyed by children, families, and retired persons. The bill would also limit the government’s ability to prevent and fight forest fires on these lands.

At the state level, AB 1130 would establish a “Sierra Nevada Conservancy” to guide conservation projects in the Sierra and add to the more than 60% of the region that is already publicly owned. Many supporters of this measure have the best intentions. However, unless guarantees of respect for public access to public lands are included, the Conservancy’s purchases could easily become yet another example of the irony of “public” ownership.

The current form of AB 1130 would allow Conservancy decision-makers to act without any accountability to local residents, and would also free the Conservancy to purchase land without establishing how the land will be managed. Sadly, we can see from the Headwaters what can happen when intentions for land management are concealed until after a purchase.

Most of us love our public lands. However, if taxpayers are asked to pay for land, they should be able to enjoy that land within reasonable limits. Unless proponents of further purchases are willing to guarantee this will be the case, we just need to tell the elitists to buy land with their own dollars.

--Tim Leslie is Assemblyman of California’s 4th Assembly District, which reaches from Roseville to Lake Tahoe in the north and Mammoth Lakes in the south.

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