The federal government is land-happy and ought to admit it can protect the environment without taking possession of it, a General Accounting Office said today.
The government already owns more than one-third of all U.S. land, including 86 percent of Nevada and 95 percent of Alaska, and plans to spend $10 billion in he next 11 years to buy more, the report said.
Yet there is no overall federal policy for land acquisition, which often is handled in ways that cause maximum friction with local authorities and residents, according to the GAO.
If found that the Forest Service, the Department of Agriculture and the Interior Department "generally followed the practice of acquiring as much land as possible without regard to need and alternatives to purchase."
Reporting at the request of Rep. Phillip Burton (D-Calif.), chairman of the House national parks subcommittee, the GAO said the government tends to buy land it doesn't need, without a coherent plan for its use and without examining other ways to protect it.
This often tends to make costs three of four times higher than expected, and to antagonize residents who want the land to stay on local tax rolls for agricultrue, housing or resource development, the study continued.
Between 1970 and 1977, the government spend $606 million to buy 2.2 million acres under full or partial title, according to the GAO. Most of the 760 million acres under federal ownership have never been in private hands; only 60 million have been bought. More than 90 percent of the federal turf is in 13 Western states, and eight states are more than 40 percent government-owned.
Resistance to federal buying in these areas in growing rapidly. The "Sagebrush Rebellion" is mounting in western states against Bureau of Land Management land use rules, and there is considerable local pressure for state control. Much of the controversy over legislation on Alaska land use involves the extent of federal control.
The GAO suggests that zoning changes and the use of easements could often provide the same control as ownership more cheaply and with much less local friction. In Idaho, the Forest Service worked with local people to set up a plan to preserve 754,000 acres in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, using a combination of acquisition and easements, the report related.
Much of the land stayed on local tax rolls and in private use through the issuance of certificates guaranteeing cooperation in scenic and resource preservation.
The GAO report recommended that a federal land acquisition policy be drawn up exploring alternatives to purchase.
Every acquisition should be coordinated with state and local officials and carried out only after alaternatives are fully examined, the GAO said. It recommended that Congress keep an eye on the process.
Most of the agencies criticized in the GAO report said they agreed with many of the points raised or were already considering alternatives to purchase. mThe Interior Department, however, said much of its purchasing is at congressional order and that zoning and easements often are not suitable.