Privatizing the Public Estate

“Selling public lands can help reduce the drain on the treasury”

–Terry Anderson, 2006

There is nothing as priceless in a physical sense that Americans can bequeath their descendents than the public domain – national parks, national forests, bureau of land management (BLM) lands and wildlife refuges that, collectively, make up a third of the nation. These, at least for now, belong equally to all 300 million U.S. citizens, billionaire and pauper alike. But a “private sector” that has bought everything from networks to congressmen has our lands in its crosshairs, and in recent decades right wing economists and legal advisors have devised strategies aimed at their privatization, a goal furthered by repeated reductions of the budgets of land management agencies, allegedly in the interest of “streamlining” government. What puts this issue on front burner now is a skyrocketing national debt of well beyond ten trillion dollars, nearly the size of the entire U.S economy and requiring the National Debt Clock to drop its $ sign in order to make room for the additional digit.

Efforts by private interests to gain control of public lands have evolved from the “Sagebrush Rebellion” of the 1970s, through the “Wise Use Movement”, and into so-called “free-market environmentalism” consisting of a politically powerful and massively funded network of industrial interests and conservative foundations and think tanks pushing privatization via such means as “competitive outsourcing” and “public-private partnerships”. Now, as we learn that Wall Street entities that crashed are so “systemically critical” to society that they are “to big to fail”, and that there is no salvation other than from the federal treasury (taxpayers), what are we to do with this longer-range issue of the ballooning national debt? A family in financial crisis would logically sell of some of its possessions, but at national level what can be liquidated? It’s a pertinent question, and the public domain would surely figure in any ensuing discussion, for what else do We The People own of such immense monetary value?


The architects of free market environmentalism have been candid. Writing in the Cato Journal in 1981, for example, James Beckwith laid out a stepwise plan for privatizing public parks (although applicable to public lands in general) that would begin by encouraging volunteerism. His strategy was for “… ascending radicalism from reform through volunteerism and privatization of services to the outright abolition of public ownership and the transfer of parks to private parties.”

Beckwith knew that a sudden takeover would trigger reaction and therefore proposed that privatization be introduced by degrees, with “the most tentative step” being recruitment of volunteers and later “the contracting out of support services to private firms operating for profit”. (Volunteerism, in this era of Bush/Cheney, is being pushed hard ). Later, Beckwith wrote, “existing public parks could either be given away or sold to the highest bidder.” In such a scenario, we citizens, the former owners, would become “customers”. In a monument to the ruthlessness and sterility of economic logic, he wrote “The gate fee could cover such hard-to-charge-for amenities as the sky, broad vistas, and fragrant flowers.”

Beckwith’s essay had been prepared for a 1980 conference, “Property Rights and Natural Resources: A New Paradigm for the Environmental Movement”, a strategy session for “free-market environmentalism” sponsored by the Cato Institute and the Center for Political Economy and Natural Resources. In it, he cited the assistance of John Baden and Terry Anderson, both of whom are now, nearly three decades later, principal advocates of “free-market environmentalism” and major figures in the effort to privatize public lands.

One of the many organizations and “think tanks” advocating for privatization of the public’s assets, and reliance on market mechanisms rather than regulation of industry, is the Property & Environment Research Center (PERC) whose director is Terry Anderson, author of the introductory quote above. Anderson was lead author of a disturbing 1999 policy paper, also published by Cato, “How and Why to Privatize Federal Lands”, in which he advanced a breathtakingly insidious plan to privatize public domain by allocating to citizens “shares” that could then be sold on the open market where, obviously, poor citizens would be quick to sell. But even the middle class, saddled with mortgages and medical and tuition bills, would in time need to cash out to a corporate sector and a billionaire set waiting on the sidelines. According to Anderson’s vision, this transfer into a small private ownership would take 20-40 years – one or two generations. In 2000, as George W. Bush was running for the Presidency, Terry Anderson became his advisor on public lands issues.


A principal “surge” of the Bush Administration is to privatize as much of society as possible. Privatization of military operations has been especially newsworthy due to actions of mercenary companies in Iraq, such as Blackwater. In 2003, Bush made known his goal of outsourcing as many as 850,000 federal positions, and that same year, Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced intention to privatize more than 16,000 jobs in the U.S. Park Service, nearly 72%. In 2006 alone, 150,000 volunteers worked five million hours in the U.S. Park Service’s “Volunteers in the Parks” program, thus replacing 2451 full time positions, even as Bush’s budgets encouraged private investment. As of 2007, Bush called for a billion dollar private investment in the Park System by 2016. Private sector contracting is also underway in the U.S. Forest Service, the BLM, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

In 2005, Republican Richard Pombo, then head of the House Resources Committee, and an advocate for privatizing public land, spearheaded an unsuccessful attempt to allow holders of mining claims on public land to buy the land outright. But the language of the bill, which could have resulted in hundreds of millions of acres of public lands being privatized, was so nebulous that a New York Times editorial labeled the bill “a blatant fraud on the American people, expressed in bland legislative legalese.” The following year, a “revenue-sharing” plan for the sale of BLM land would have sent 70% of the proceeds directly to the Federal Treasury. Environmentalist Janine Blaeloch, director of the Western Lands Project, argued that “The worry is the link between the deficit and selling these lands; … That concept has now been put forth so many times by the Bush Administration that people will become indifferent to the proposal. This will further entrench that whole philosophy.”

Public Domain needn’t necessarily be taken from us in a single assault but in bits and pieces and by creatively deceptive policies. In 2007, for example, The U.S. Forest Service, relying on public concerns about global warming, announced a “Carbon Capital Fund” that would allow a citizen to “offset” personal CO2 emissions by buying vouchers, the cash then to be used for tree planting in national forests. In other words, the government is seeking voluntary donations from citizens for management of public forests historically administered from the tax base.

A rising application of “user fees” of various sorts is also a central aspect of the privatization agenda. User fees exclude much of the population from their own lands by “rationing access”, to use the words of Beckwith in his landmark 1981 proposal. “If the price of recreation is raised”, Beckwith wrote, “less of it will be demanded by consumers”. Note that he sees Americans as consumers, not as owners. As in the case of the “health industry”, such user fees naturally deny access to lower income Americans, a factor of no apparent concern to free-marketeers. User fees have elicited considerable public reaction.

Other schemes exist to privatize public land, and they invariably connect to industry-backed efforts to devolve public lands to state and local control and, at the same time, to solidify the sanctity of private property. One organization on this path is the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE), whose director, John Baden, a former member of the National Petroleum Council, has called for a shift of control of public land from “green platonic despots in D.C.” to “local interests”. In this, he mirrors Beckwith, who, in his 1981 proposal to privatize parks, wrote that “it is essential that property rights in the parks be defined, transferred, and enforced”. What makes FREE particularly noteworthy is that it gives workshops designed specifically for federal judges, state supreme court justices, law professors, religious leaders, and what it calls “social entrepreneurs”. FREE has been able to boast that a third of the federal judiciary has attended, or has applied to, its seminars, a troubling fact given that one of the seminars is titled “Liberty and the Environment: A Case for Principled Judicial Activism”.

U.S. governmental analyst Richard C. Cook has laid out his step-by-step analysis of how the Federal Reserve, Wall Street and the U.S. Government engineered the housing bubble and the resulting financial collapse that has yielded a level of anxiety in U.S. citizens not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. That noted, what is a society driven to such a level of fear willing to give up? While arguments and strategies for selling off our public lands have not yet met with major success, they lurk in the background like loaded guns. The fact that on every citizen’s head is a $34,000 debt that is growing cancerously is itself becoming an ever-stronger argument for liquidation of our land.

Privatization can take place before the public is aware, for laws allowing such measures can be hidden within massive spending bills and voted on by members of Congress who have had little time for critical review and hence no understanding of many of the bill’s details. And as legal machinery is being set up for such a takeover, who would warn the people? Brokaw or Williams of NBC/General Electric? Gibson or Stephanopoulos of ABC/ Disney? Any of the wealthy “journalists” reporting for the corporate “persons” that now own the networks and that would certainly be big winners in any privatization model?

Beckwith, Cato, PERC, FREE … these are just parts of a much larger system aimed at the transfer of public domain into private hands. The web is so vast, and its interests can be advanced through so many guises, that paths can be difficult to follow. Its program is advancing rapidly now that the nation’s citizens, already focused on terrorism and foreign wars, have been placed in panic mode by an economy in shambles and a Treasury Secretary and Wall Street profiteer named Paulson who, when he stares into the camera and says “We had no choice”, is really telling Americans “You have no choice”.

Bill Willers is emeritus professor of biology, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, founder of Superior Wilderness Action Network (SWAN) and editor of “Learning to Listen to the Land” and “Unmanaged Landscapes“, both from Island Press.