People need access to wild spaces, I argued in a recent column. But who should control those spaces? If we’re talking about converting your manicured lawn to a wildflower and native grass pollinator garden, usually you control the space—although you might have to fight city bureaucrats and HOA busy-bodies. What about larger wilderness areas that are open, or more-open, to the public?
In Colorado, most wilderness lands are owned by the federal government. The federal government, mostly the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, owns 36.2% of all of Colorado, KDVR reported last year. By contrast, the federal government owns 80.1% of Nevada but only 0.5% of Kansas, KDVR reported, with the other states between those extremes.
If we consider only Colorado’s forests, the federal government owns 65% of those, Colorado State University reports. Private owners control 30% of forests, while the rest of forested land “is held by a combination of tribal governments, municipalities, state agencies and other non-federal entities,” CSU says.
Although national parks cover only a small fraction of Colorado’s forested lands, they are popular with residents and major tourist draws. Most famous among these are the Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, and, of course, Rocky Mountain National Park.
Most people, especially progressives, think it is perfectly obvious that government, especially the federal government, should control most wilderness areas. That has been the norm since Teddy Roosevelt.
Not everyone agrees with that, however. Some more-traditional constitutional conservatives, including former law professor Rob Natelson, see widespread federal ownership of lands as contrary to enumerated powers. “The Founding-Era records disclose a universal belief that most federal lands would be sold promptly,” Natelson writes in his book The Original Constitution; “Most of the Founders would have seen permanent federal land ownership for unenumerated purposes as subversive of the constitutional scheme.”
Plausibly, state governments would manage wilderness lands more to the liking of residents of those states. State governments also might be more-prone to the influence of regional special-interests. Yet the national government long has been accused of mismanaging its forests.
Hard-core libertarians are suspicious of government ownership of most anything, including wilderness lands. A lot of libertarians would rather governments at all levels privatize such lands. Critics, of course, envision rows of million-dollar homes spoiling the landscape. That’s not what libertarians think would usually happen—surely the economic move is to preserve those lands most-valued for their natural beauty—but most people don’t want to leave such decisions to “the market.”
There is some argument that wilderness lands provide a “public good” not easily captured by market dynamics. Will people today sufficiently regard the value of wilderness areas to future generations? And arguably people who spend time in the wilds emerge as better people. This provides some rationale for government to protect and subsidize wild lands. Of course, governments also could privatize and even subsidize wild lands on condition that the owners (say, a non-profit organization) restrict development and protect public access.
The trend has been for the state and local governments to buy up and manage more wilderness lands. Colorado maintains 42 state parks. I have visited several, and generally I have found them well-maintained. (An exception was Eleven Mile State Park, where I found trash, including a used condom, awaiting me at my camp site. Gross. Overall it’s a nice park though.) Starting this year, state government presumes that you want to pay $29 for a state park pass with your vehicle registration, unless you explicitly opt out.
Staunton State Park used to be a homestead. The state summarizes some of the history: “The first 1,720-acre parcel was donated to Colorado State Parks in 1986 by Frances Hornbrook Staunton. Subsequent parcels, including a portion of the Davis Ranch and Elk Falls property, were acquired in the late 1990s. In 2006, a small key parcel, called the Chase property, was added to the Park to reach its current land base of approximately 3,828 acres.”
Lakewood owns the lovely park near Stone House. A sign at the site states, “In 1982 the City of Lakewood acquired the Bear Creek Greenbelt from multiple property owners, [the park] which now encompasses 379 acres. This two-mile corridor preserves meadows, wetlands, ponds and riparian forest for wildlife habitat and recreation.”
Colorado Springs owns the impressive Garden of the Gods. Railroad owner Charles Elliott Perkins bought “two-hundred and forty acres in the Garden of the Gods for a summer home,” reports the park’s web site. “In 1909, Perkins’ children, knowing their father’s feeling for the Garden of the Gods, conveyed his four-hundred eighty acres to the City of Colorado Springs.”
Like some other cities, Westminster owns so much wilderness area, including the land around Standley Lake, that it hires its own rangers. Part of that land hosts nesting birds and so is off-limits to most people. Originally the lake was built by private developers, the city relates. Looking to “manage Standley Lake as a regional park,” in 1971 the city “annexed 2,500 acres of land that included Standley Lake, bringing its primary water source and the reservoir’s recreational potential into the city limits.”
The history of the reservoir involves various legal disputes and property transfers. Here are how things turned out, the city relates: “In 1998, after years of attempts to turn Standley Lake into a regional park, Jefferson County Open Space and FRICO [the Farmers Reservoir and Irrigation Company] reached an agreement that transferred land and recreation rights to the county. The county then deeded the property, together with the lake’s surface recreational rights, to the City of Westminster with the understanding that the city would maintain and improve Standley Lake as it was converted to a regional park.”
I think preserving wild areas is very important. I’m not really sure what role government ideally plays in that. Given the status quo, people can at least have some important conversations about how governments manage their wilderness areas, such as regarding the reduction of wildfire risks. We should expect discussions about government-run lands often to become politicized. If we are concerned about abuses of government power, I can think of quite a few matters that probably deserve more attention. Meanwhile, people need not concern themselves with the politics of wilderness lands in order to enjoy them.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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