Highlands Conservation Act: Stealing Private Property with Public Dollars

March 9, 2004

By Cheryl K. Chumley

Just when you thought you had a handle on the maneuvers of environmentalists and the politicians who pander to these anti-private property activists, now comes a new stealth measure aimed at taking even more of your land.

Presented as a friendly partnership plan for necessary preservation of clean drinking water reservoirs, wildlife habitat, and endangered species, the Highlands Conservation Act (H.R. 1964) is actually a carefully crafted, multi-layered, insidious hoax that spits on the Constitution and in the faces of freedom-seeking Americans nationwide.

If left unchecked, this $100 million-plus bill or its companion Senate version, S. 999 that’s even worse, it will become the steppingstone for greater power to the Greens.

The way it works is this: Governors in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey identify which lands in the two million acre Highlands region should be taken from private control and placed under government jurisdiction. The Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture Departments pass along these targeted land grab suggestions to members of Congress. They in turn give their stamp of approval on funding the so-called necessary conservation actions with 50% matching federal dollars, up to $10 million annually from 2005-2014 with general Treasury or Land and Water Conservation Fund disbursements.

This is the new and supposed friendly partnership aspect of the bill; that the federal land bureaucracies assume the more humble role of financial provider while leaving the “non-federal” entities (also known as non-governmental organizations or NGOs; all with political agendas) in charge of identifying which properties to purchase and manage. Comparatively meeker to past land management measures as this federal involvement may sound, deeper analysis reveals several hidden agendas at play.

Do you think, for instance, that the governors of these four States, when faced with the tempting opportunity to receive millions of taxpayer dollars, will show restraint when it comes to identifying land parcels for preservation? The nature of the political beast says no: The history of these four states’ involvement with H.R. 1964 proves otherwise, too.

Connecticut and Pennsylvania, while listed in the bill as Highlands states, were never formally included in the USDA Forest Service’s official land assessment studies conducted in 1992 and 2002.

That these two states were added to H.R. 1964 stems primarily from the findings of their own open space and green plans which, happily for all involved, coincided with the Forest Service’s 2002 formal findings that “long-term sustainability” of the Highlands depends upon the ability of land management efforts to “span local and even state political boundaries.” Research indicates a wide range of environmental groups, from the Sierra Club to the Highlands Coalition, had a heavy hand in helping Connecticut and Pennsylvania politicians develop these land use plans that were added to the Forest Service studies cited in this bill as evidence of the region’s “national significance.”

So, what if politicians in Maryland and Vermont decide they want a piece of the federal money pie, too? The Highlands region is already mapped as a connecting corridor of land, Wildlands Project style, that extends from eastern Pennsylvania through New Jersey and New York to northwestern Connecticut, adjacent to 15 parcels of federally protected property. It wouldn’t take much effort on the part of environmentalists to convince Congress of the “nationally significant” need to extend the lines of land acquisition a bit further to offer Vermont and Maryland similar partnership perks as awarded the four states in H.R. 1964.

The friendly Forest Service certainly won’t oppose extension of “non-federal” or NGO control of Highlands property. While the bill maintains this agency will only assume an advisory role to “local government, individual landowners, and private organizations in identifying” lands for conservation, and grants an extra $1 million each year to cover the costs of these duties, the Forest Service’s own 2002 study offers a different understanding of its authority.

The Forest Service ought to “continue (its) leadership role in land management in the Highlands and in implementing these strategies” by “modifying or creating authority and processes necessary for governance and decision making,” the agency’s “New York-New Jersey Highlands Regional Study: 2002 Update” states.

That sounds a bit like a plan for ultimate Forest Service control of the Highlands area. And with H.R. 1964 granting the agency the right to “undertake other studies and research as appropriate,” it also sounds a bit like the doors opening to land acquisitions and government management in other states, regardless of the bill’s so-called guarantee of private property protections and non-federal authority.

“So-called” is the key phrase here: The private property protection section of the bill says appropriations “shall be used to purchase lands or interests in lands only from willing sellers.” Sounds non-threatening enough, right? But unfortunately, the entire notion of the willing seller is a joke.

By and large, property owners do not understand the intense pressure well-funded conservation groups create on local politicians to acquire land or the complex maze of collaborations and partnerships the NGOs form to achieve these ends.

Buying small parcels here, winning over a few landowners there, these radical conservationists slowly increase the amount of acreage off limits for human use. The landowners who hesitate or refuse to sell become surrounded by these public properties and find the restrictions placed on the managed lands now trickle onto their boundaries. They often lose water rights, access road use, and development rights. In effect, these non-willing sellers lose control of their lands.

As a result, their land loses value and they decide to sell. They become the “willing sellers.”

Those living adjacent to the managed property areas, meanwhile, suffer enormous tax hikes and cost-of-living increases. As private property converts to public property, local tax bases shrink. The government must recoup this revenue somewhere; remaining residents pay in the form of higher taxes and new fees.

H.R. 1964 will continue this decimation of local communities because it allows the federal government to be used as a bank for financing the political agendas of private NGOs.

Changing the language in the bill’s private property section will not prevent this destruction of local communities and Constitutional private property protections from occurring. Even if language were tightened to the point of providing security that locals really would control the future of Highlands property, history indicates private property owners and advocates would still emerge from the bill’s passage as the tossed-aside underdogs.

In 1998, a 15,800-acre privately owned tract of land within commuting distance of New York City called Sterling Forest was targeted for preservation after environmentalists learned developers were planning to build 13,000 new homes for an estimated 35,000 potential residents. An organization called the Palisades Interstate Park Commission took the lead in rallying for purchase and public management of these lands, forming coalitions with other local and state environmentalists. These included known Wildlands Project supporters like the Audubon Society to take their arguments to Congress.

What resulted was a partnership between the federal government and state NGOs, where the former gave money so that the latter could purchase and control land.

Sound familiar? The Sterling Forest deal, which ultimately encompassed about 17,000 acres and – coincidentally again – connects Highlands property targeted in H.R. 1964, is also the model for this bill. The déjà vu continues: H.R. 1964 specifies the Palisade Interstate Park Commission as a “non-federal” entity “with authority to own and manage land for conservation purposes.”

Past experience would indicate this is one non-federal group that wouldn’t hesitate to spread its management authority further throughout Highlands region lands, the majority of which is currently privately owned.

To maintain that private ownership, perhaps Senate supporters like Sens. Rick Santorum, Arlen Specter, Ron Wyden and Larry Craig could take an uncharacteristically nonpolitical step and insert logical language in the bill, before Senate Public Lands and Forests subcommittee members approve it unchallenged during a scheduled March 24 hearing.

Perhaps a line could be added to this effect: “County governments shall maintain final authority to veto any land proposal stemming from this bill.” That ought to stop the droolings of cash-strapped state politicians and land-hungry environmental radicals for a while, at least.

The fundamental concept of private property, the keystone of our economy, would be better served if the entire measure were scrapped. That would abolish any chance the politicians and radical Greenies have of realizing its hidden agendas.

Otherwise, we Americans are facing the dire consequences of Wildlands Project goals to lock out 50% of each state’s lands from human use. It is our tax dollars that are assisting current Wildlands Project efforts to take land from Maine to Tennessee from the private sector. And we’re helping to realize the Wildlands Project dream of grabbing an enormous, connected swath of eastern U.S. land and placing it off limits to all forms of human residence and productive use forever.

H.R. 1964 sits squarely on the backs of the American taxpayer, who could be required to fund these Wildlands Project practices for decades because of a bill that does not even bother to stipulate whether Congress will stop its land grab funding past the 2014 deadline.

Cheryl K. Chumley is Associate Editor of the American Policy Center News Wire. The Center, a grassroots, activist think tank is headquartered in Warrenton, Virginia, and maintains an Internet site at www.americanpolicy.org

Tom DeWeese
[email protected]

Tom DeWeese is one of the nation’s leading advocates of individual liberty, free enterprise, private property rights, personal privacy, back-to-basics education and American sovereignty and independence.