With more than 10.7 million visitors in 2015, the Great Smoky Mountains rank first among the 59 national parks, generating more than $800 million in economic benefits to nearby towns and cities. Yet if congressional Republicans prevail, the federal government could sell or transfer a piece, or hypothetically all of the 522,000-acre park to a state or local authorities. And in a worst-case scenario for the environment, those jurisdictions could feasibly sell the land to private developers.
The House approved byzantine language in a larger rules package this week that would change the way the cost of federal land transfers would be calculated, thus making it easier for these hand-offs to occur. The National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, US Forest Service, Fish & Wildlife Service and Department of Defense would be affected by the change.
Conservative lawmakers have long wanted to offload federal lands, in part to ostensibly save money on maintenance and operations, but also to allow state and local authorities to collect taxes on the acreage. (Note that the federal government already makes “payments in lieu of taxes” to local governments that help offset losses in property taxes.) Yet the overriding reason is to politically assuage anti-government, anti-regulatory factions in the West, where most of the federal lands are located.
If the rules become law, the change could not only jeopardize the environment — these areas are subject to protections that private land may not be — but also privatize a public good.
A similar scenario, albeit in miniature, played out in North Carolina several years ago. That’s when NC State University Endowment Fund planned to sell the 79,000-acre Hofmann Forest to timber and agribusiness interests for $131 million. Environmental advocates sued; the deal ultimately fell through. Now the fund has contracted with a private company to manage part of the forest for 50 years. However, the forest will remain open to students and faculty for research.
The federal government can already dispose of land, either by an act of Congress or by complying with certain budgetary rules. In fact, since 1990, the percentage of federally owned land has decreased by 3.6 percent, most of it through shuttering military bases. Meanwhile, the National Park Service, Forest Service and Fish & Wildlife Service have added land using federal conservation funds, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
North Carolina has added 139,832 acres in federal land since 1990, a 6.1 percent increase. That brings the total to 2.4 million acres from coast to mountains: starting from the swamps of the Pocosin Lake National Wildlife Refuge, to the migratory bird sanctuary at the Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge before resting at the peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains.