April 16, 2014

On Federal Land Management, desert tortoises, and range wars

On his show last night, Mark Levin referenced a fascinating 2002 study by Ron Utt, PhD, that — using the government’s own data — showed developed land in the US was, at the time, 5.2 % in the contiguous 48 states; and that even that figure was likely high.  From the study:

According to the most widely available land use survey/report recently published by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA),16 only 5.2 percent of the land in the 48 contiguous states is considered developed, and this figure may overstate the scope of residential and commercial development, since other federal surveys suggest that the true amount of such land may be under 4.0 percent. [….]

But even the NRI estimate may overstate the true scope of the amount of developed (human-occupied) land in the United States. USDA’s definition of “developed” land also includes the amount of land in rural areas devoted to highways, roads, railroad right-of-ways, power transmission lines, pipelines, etc., which represent ribbons of developed land use traversing otherwise undeveloped and unoccupied rural areas to connect one urbanized area to another, or a farm house with a major road. In and of themselves, such uses do not represent “development” as the term has come to be defined, as denoting areas of permanent human habitation and occupation. When such uninhabited forms of public infrastructure are removed from the USDA’s tally of “developed” land, whatever land remains is technically referred to as “urbanized.” In providing a measurement of the amount of urbanized land in the continental United States, the federal government offers a choice of two estimates derived from two separate federal surveys of land use patterns.

Using the land use estimates reported by the NRI survey for 1997, urbanized areas accounted for just 4.0 percent of the land in the continental United States (3.2 percent if Alaska is included).17 Moreover, that 4.0 percent of the land was home to approximately 75 percent of the population. Adding to this total the amount of rural areas identified as containing residential housing (which the USDA defines as one housing unit per 10 acres or more) brings these loosely inhabited areas of the continental United States to 7.3 percent.


Other federal land use estimates suggest that urbanized areas account for an even smaller amount of land than found in the NRI survey. The USDA conducts another land use survey, called the Census of Agriculture, every five years. Unlike the NRI survey, which is based on a national sample of land use patterns (and therefore potentially more prone to error),19 the Census of Agriculture is conducted as an enumeration, and the use to which every bit of land is put is measured, tabulated, and reported. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, in 1997 this survey found that “urbanized” land accounted for no more than 3.4 percent of all of the land in the continental United States.[…]

Thus, after nearly 400 years of unmanaged development and rabbit-like population growth, somewhere between 3.4 percent and 5.2 percent of land in the continental United States has been consumed, according to the several federal surveys measuring the use of that land.

Those with a skeptical view of the federal findings on land use patterns may argue that the inclusion of the vast empty spaces of America’s mountainous West and the sparsely populated farmland in the Midwest tend to make the national average look better than it is. In their view, the older and heavily urbanized states on the East and West Coasts would show unacceptably high levels of developed land and fast-disappearing woods and meadows. But that perception is largely untrue. Many of the states whose settlement goes back for most of the four centuries of the American experience still maintain very large shares of undeveloped land […].

In both New York and Virginia, which were settled in the early 1600s, nearly 90 percent of the land is still undeveloped, while in Pennsylvania the share is over 85 percent, and in Maryland it is over 80 percent. In contrast, both New Jersey and Rhode Island’s developed shares hover at around one-third of the available land–some of the highest shares in the nation but still leaving both states with about two-thirds of their land undeveloped or in agricultural use.

Despite the evidence on land use, and for reasons hard to explain, the contrived crisis in land use has become an object of worry for some federal Cabinet-level departments. It has also become a high policy priority for environmental groups and academics, a concern of journalists, a reason for Senators to encourage a federal land planning program, a justification for local officials to violate property rights and discourage homeownership, and a rationale for terrorism on the part of a lunatic fringe obsessed with trees and dirt–all of this because just 5.2 percent of America’s land has been developed.

However trivial the pace of development thus far, as revealed by the data, the aggressive promotion of smart growth policies by some in the media and a gross misrepresentation of the facts by many environmentalists threaten the freedom of ordinary Americans to choose living arrangements that best suit their needs. In a growing number of counties and states, Americans’ preferences are being pre-empted as restrictive land use practices are imposed in order to redirect lifestyle choices. Their decisions are confined by rules promulgated by environmental and artistic elites eager to save American families from their pedestrian tastes and philistine choices.

A prominent new urbanist advocate, James Howard Kunstler, spoke for many of the elites eager to save ordinary Americans from their graceless state of fashion-impaired lifestyles when he complained:

When we drive around and look at all this cartoon architecture and other junk that we’ve smeared all over the landscape, we register it as ugliness. This ugliness is the surface expression of deeper problems–problems that relate to the issue of our national character. The highway strip is not just a sequence of eyesores. The pattern it represents is also economically catastrophic, an environmental calamity, socially devastating, and spiritually degrading.20

Of course, one might counter “urban advocate” James Howard Kunstler’s argument with a pithy retort along the lines of,  “and we give a fuck what informs your own particular aesthetic because…”?  But why bother.  As one of our betters, he’s not answerable to us. We are just individual strokes of the landscape that he and his like wish to move around on their “spiritual” and “social” canvas.  And we need to be corralled, centralized, stacked, and controlled.  For the Greater Good.  Of themselves.

What we have here, as Levin noted last night and as you’ve read me and others argue for quite some time now, is an attempt by the academic, leftist, bureaucratic elite, through the pretense of “environmental protection” or “protecting natural resources,” to nationalize private property.

Which is why this standoff between a rancher in Nevada is so compelling to so many of us:  it’s not that we are opposed to rule of law; it’s that we’re opposed to the unfair and essentially capricious and / or vindictive usage of laws that are unequally applied, defiling the basic foundation of our country’s founding, equality before a (stable) law.  Not to mention, exculpatory elements within federal land ownership claims that favor people like Mr Bundy.

The original pretense for the federal government turning the federal land on which Mr Bundy’s cattle has grazed for nearly a century and a half into “conservation land” — land that could not be used by humans, for the most part, be they off-roaders or ranchers or farmers (solar farms?  Well, that’s a different story.  Because PROGRESS!) — was the supposed endangerment of the desert tortoise.  But because that species is no longer endangered, by what authority does the BLM and its federal partners in the environmental protection movement, claim to keep restrictive control over that land?  And the answer is simple: government moves in only one direction, left, and we have no countervailing force in power to check it.  Which is why we either use a convention of the states to rob these extra-legal bureaucracies of their powers; or else we elect enough strict constitutionalists who would be able to articulate the danger to private property we are facing, and then have the support of enough of the populace to defund entire segments of the administrative state.

As we watch governmental bureaucracies go after rain buckets and puddles or stock ponds on people’s private property (all water leads to other water, which eventually leads to “navigable waters” over which they claim jurisdiction) or try to have spilled milk and dust labeled ecologically sinister and therefore justifiably ended through lawsuits or outright takeovers of private land, what we are really seeing is the Marxist long game to rid the country of private property (save for the sprawling acreage owned by the elites themselves).

But if you listen to the prevailing narrative, regurgitated by politicians and the media alike, we’re eating up all our resources, littering the country with the “blight” of “urban sprawl” or “strip malls,” and that but for the noble bureaucrats, we’d soon be out of space, and we’d all be facing shortages of food, water, etc.

The truth, however, is precisely the opposite:  federal control over land, which is being used to take land from private owners who produce food, or energy, etc., is creating a completely phony and economically unnecessary burden on citizens of the US.

This land is your land; this land is my land.  This land is not the Interior Department’s, or the EPA’s, or NOA’s.

Say what you want about the civil disobedience being deployed by Mr Bundy in the slimy world of cronyism that marks so much of Nevada politics; but the fact is, the stand he’s taking, while it may eschew federal court rulings, is nonetheless worth supporting, if only because it draws attention to the draconian means the federal bureaucracies are prepared to use to harass individual private property owners — even as the amount of undeveloped land in the US remains at about 95%, a staggering figure.  As was the 200 armed enforcement officers with weapons the government deployed to try to neutralize this heretic.

Conservationists, it turns out, are nothing more than hoarders. Only they’ve been able to justify it by selling the nobility of their cause to a gullible public, using as its source of narrative transmission politicians from both parties, and the demagoguery of the media and the academy.

On the plus side, when shit hits the fan, 95% of the country is a lot of undeveloped land to try to police.  But then, maybe that’s why the left is so keen on drone usage.

Posted by Jeff G. @ 9:18am

Comments (27)

  1. . . . federal land planning program . . .

    It’s odd, I think, that while ontologically attached to a schema of Historical Necessity (We are the ones we’ve been waiting for!), the Progressives so rarely examine their own history. So for instance, when thinking of instituting various “federal land planning program[s]”, we don’t see a halt called to examine the effects of the Progressive inner-city planning programs which resulted in Cabrini Green and numerous other housing disasters, with the simple thought that “Hey! Maybe we don’t know what we think we know when we set out to design heavy-handed top-down distributions of public goods?

    But then, there is evidently no faith like the faith of the modern Progressive, a faith boundless because it finds its telos in the abyssal blackness of the unknown future alone, combined with its private certainty of its own good intentions, intentions sufficient to bypass the pearly gates themselves.

  2. F. A. Hayek thought about it.

  3. Greetings:

    And so, the ugly of acres and acres of wind turbines and solar panels will out-ugly the ugly inherent in capitalism thereby restoring the beauty of our seriously damaged environment in a hair-of-the-dog kind of way ???

  4. Per Kunt-slur: “The highway strip is not just a sequence of eyesores. The pattern it represents is also economically catastrophic, an environmental calamity, socially devastating, and spiritually degrading.”

    As the underlying statistics attest, the highway strip is, in fact, just a strip of land, little more than the facades one would see in a “Ghost Town” tourist trap. As is so shamefully common amongst our “deep thinkers,” Kunt-slur sees only the surface, and not the hundreds of thousands of undeveloped acres lying right behind that surface.

    This is a man who will loudly proclaim that elephants are made 100% from grey leather, and defend that notion to the end, because such shallow analysis forms the core of his beliefs. And he and his ilk will still be trotted out on NPR and CNN as “experts,” and people will come to believe that elephants are made of leather all the way through, because some asshole in a tweed jacket said so on TV.

  5. Last time I flew was from San Jose to Denver. There is a lot of nothing down there.

  6. Hey! Maybe we don’t know what we think we know when we set out to design heavy-handed top-down distributions of public goods?

    Assuming that their intended goal was to provide actual housing to actual people instead of Doing Something To Make Us Look Good.

    It all reduces to onanism, so the actual results of the actions are irrelevant.

  7. the ugly of acres and acres of rusted out and derelict wind turbines and solar panels


  8. Urbanites, especially in the east, don’t want their “wilderness” playgrounds in the west to be disturbed. They’re genuinely shocked when we westerners aren’t exactly hospitable to their condescending explanations of why it’s not really “our land” and why we’re so selfish to think so.

    They’re really not interested in the well-being of the Earth or they’d think of time in geologic terms. For example, if there’s mining near a national park, the trucks will kick up dust and drop polluted air into the canyons.

    For how long? A century, maybe? After the mining stops, the dust and pollutants will eventually vanish, along with any damage they’ve done to the biosphere.

    Same with the structures that today are “eyesores” and tomorrow are historic artifacts. Which will also rust away and be gone.

    And the Earth will carry on as before, no matter what we’ve done to it.

    Nope, they’re worried about what bugs them during their lifetimes.

    Onanism, my friends. Always back to the onanism.

  9. Anyone who claims the US is overpopulated and population density must be increased has never driven from Denver to Billings, Montana (or Lincoln, Nebraska).

    When cows count as points of interest, it’s a really fucking boring drive.

  10. Even here in the most populous US State, the drive from (say) Victorville to Nevada State Line, or Palm Springs to Blythe is several hours of counting cactus, with the occasional rusting billboard recounting the thrilling sites only a few hundred miles ahead.

    “Have YOU seen The Thing? 275 miles”


  11. It’s why I laugh at the environmentalists, the climate change people, and the like. The stories we hear from the MSM are invariable told with a big-city bias (e.g NYC or DC), because it’s where they live, and it’s all about them. Which would be fine-ish, except these big-city problems (such as they are) then become the National Agenda. Based on world-view that is more laughably insular than you’d find in any of the hick southern towns they like to mock.

    I’ve driven through each of the lower-48, and the cries that “we’re running out of trees, we need to conserve/recycle paper” or “there’s no place left to make a landfill” or “overpopulation!” or “the environment is horribly polluted” or “there’s no reason for people to be allowed to have big SUVs; tiny hybrid or electric city cars are all we need”, or whatever… they’re easily dismissed by just looking at our country, in all it’s unimaginable unused enormity.

    And of course, the USA is just peanuts compared to the Earth as a whole.

    To think that anything we can do could ‘hurt’ the planet is the height of ignorance and hubris… more hubri-tastic than even Bloomberg himself.

  12. I think my personal “wow, I’m in nowheresville” best was somewhere in Utah on I-70, where there was a sign saying something like “next gas: 169 miles”.

    That is was the height of the summer and 100+ degrees outside without any water to be seen anywhere, just orange rocks and dust, well that just served to underline the “okay nature, you win this round” feeling of the moment.

  13. >was somewhere in Utah on I-70<

    the proggtards live in the ghetto of their hive minds

  14. You want Nowheresville?

    I-80 from Salt Lake to Wendover.

    Salt flats. Nuff said.

  15. ot psa “If you have a Boehner lasting longer than 23 years, seek immediate medical attention”

    Facing a serious challenge in his District for first time in 23 years, new Campaign ad shows an out-of-touch House Speaker golfing with Obama

  16. Di, did the I 80 to the casinos. Majestic nothingness. The casinos, a little less so.

  17. The Great Salt Lake used to be a blast to drive across with a V-8 engine and no speed limit.

  18. [W]hat we are really seeing is the Marxist long game to rid the country of private property (save for the sprawling acreage owned by the elites themselves) [by] draconian means [which] the federal bureaucracies are prepared to use to harass individual private property owners. [M]aybe that’s why the left is so keen on drone usage.

    To say nothing of the fact that every letter in the alphabet soup of federal agencies is SWATed up. I guess the Marxists must figure this is the fourth quarter of their long game.

  19. Different types of nothing. Never been on that stretch of I-80 west of SLC; wish I had. It looks really neat.

    The hunk of I-80 in PA is hateful, boring, terrible road (compared to the joy that is the PA Turnpike).

    But the thing that impressed me most about that hunk of I-70 from in UT is that there nothing, no towns, no water, just hot dusty rocks, (other than a tiny outcropping of civilization at Green River) from the eastern border of UT until you’re some 160 miles into the state near Salina. It’s the longest stretch of nothing I’ve ever encountered.

    West Texas and New Mexico (along I-10) are downright urban by comparison.

  20. sdferr, they don’t know their own history because every year is Year One. Always. Tabula Rasa. Common Core. Good Intentions. A world of, “that didn’t work but it’s okay, we can try this new thing that will create jobs for my posse, my gang, my constituents, mah people. The rest of you? No more straw for your brick-making. Get to it.”

  21. You know it’s a religion because they’re always absolving themselves of their sins by sacrificing your future on their altars of self-regard.

    Buncha religious perverts.

  22. You know it’s a religion because they’re always absolving themselves of their sins by sacrificing your future on their altars of self-regard.

    I think I’ll steal that.

  23. Anyone who claims the US is overpopulated and population density must be increased has never driven from Denver to Billings, Montana (or Lincoln, Nebraska).

    When cows count as points of interest, it’s a really fucking boring drive.

    Many years ago, my cousin got married in Denver, and the whole famn damily drove out from Mpls, Madison, Des Moines, and environs. There must have been 8 or 10 carloads of us. Getting together for lunch the day before the wedding, every single family talked about the same damn thing: “Did you see that fallen-over haystack outside of Brule?” It was the only object of note in a day and a half of driving.