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When the Feds Steal Your Land For Your Own Good

02/19/2015

When the FDR administration created Shenandoah National Park, federal agents confiscated the homes and lands of thousands of Virginians. 

James Bovard writes

The Shenandoah National Park was erected on a pyramid of lies. The original advocates claimed that the parkland was practically uninhabited — ignoring the 15,000 people residing within the originally proposed park boundaries. They claimed the land was undeveloped, near-virgin turf — despite its long history of timber harvesting, mining and beef cattle production. They also claimed the land was worth only a trifle of its actual value and thus would be cheap to acquire.

But the biggest deceits involved vilifying the mountaineers who inhabited what was then known as Virginia’s “Great Mountains.” Families had lived and worked on those ridges and hollows since the 1700s and flourishing communities dotted the landscape. But when they refused to vacate their land to satisfy a grand political vision, they were quickly tarred as know-nothing sociopaths.

Miriam Sizer, a social worker who reported to the state of Virginia, bemoaned that children in one hollow were “uncouth” and “tobacco-chewing.” National Park Service director Arno Cammerer derided some of the mountain residents as “scum.” Shenandoah National Park superintendent J.R. Lassiter denounced people living in the targeted area for suffering from a lack of “independence and resourcefulness.” But most of the mountaineers were doing just fine until they were plundered.

Families were paid as little as a dollar an acre for land worth ten times that much. Virginia’s ruling political machine was confident the new park would be a magnet for tourists, so it engineered a blanket condemnation. The land grab was spearheaded by William Carson, a wealthy businessman who orated that “there is no higher conception of duty than to feel we are of service to the State.” The government could have easily bought from willing sellers most of the land along the ridges and mountain crests where the Skyline Drive, the crown jewel of the park, was built. But politicians wanted vastly more land on both sides of the mountain range.

It was all for the good of the local Virginia economy, of course. But, you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs. 

Lake Sakakawea: Making the Self-Sufficient Destitute 

The ways that federal lands have been used a means of rewarding, punishing, and manipulating various interest groups and local residents are too numerous to list here, but in reading Bovard's account of the brutal thievery of the property of the people of the Shenandoah Valley, one may recall the creation of Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota, from 1945 to 1948.

The lands now under the man-made Lake Sakakawea used to be the most fertile grazing lands in North Dakota. The lands were used by three Indian tribes: The Hidatsas, Mandans, and Arikaras. Thanks to relatively-decent tribal treaties with the US, the access to "the best winter cattle range" in the state meant the tribes were economically self-sufficient. Unfortunately for the tribes, the Army Corps of Engineers — the same crack organization that built the New Orleans levees of Hurricane Katrina fame — decided that all these lands needed to be submerged for few reasons other than to give the Corps of Engineers something to do and a reason to request more taxpayer money. (The feds rather unconvincingly claimed the dam was necessary for flood control and to increase shipping on the Missouri River.) By an amazing coincidence, no towns inhabited by white people were flooded, but the tribes' reservation lands were flooded, including two towns.

The feds proceeded with the same sensitivity with which they savaged the people of the Shenandoah valley. Opponents of the dam were pilloried and called lazy, unpatriotic, and opposed to economic progress. After spending a few billion taxpayer dollars (in 1940s money) and paying a fraction of the market price for lands, the feds gave the tribes some far-less-valuable land. Thanks to the theft of virtually all their most productive lands, the economic self-sufficiency of the tribes has never recovered. 

One the other hand, Lake Sakakawea today allows many opportunities for boating and family fun.  

Who Controls Federal Lands? 

Interestingly, the feds' originally-stated rationale for seizing the lands — economic development — goes right out the window when there's a government shut down. Remember the 2013 government shutdown, when the park service closed up all its parks and sent "park rangers" with assault rifles to shoot anyone who dared walk into these allegedly "public" lands? The feds didn't care then what effect shutting down the parks had on the local economy.  When towns in Northern Colorado attempted to open up the closed Rocky Mountain National Park to lessen the impact on the local economy, the feds charged the state over $360,000 for the privilege of having access to the park. Overall, the Rocky Mountain shutdown caused sales tax revenue in just one nearby town to drop by almost a fifth. So, you can guess what that did to revenues of local businesses. That's no problem for the feds, of course, who can print up its own budget shortfalls in dollars in a millisecond, but the whole affair did end up provoking the question of why the feds even need to control the land in the first place. Since the true costs and benefits associated with the park fall on those who live nearby, why not let the locals control it? Or even just the state government? We can guess what the answer to that question is. Federal lands, we'll surely be told, will be federal lands until the sun burns out. Unless, of course, giving the lands away to an interest group helps someone's re-election in DC. 

Image source. 

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Contact Ryan McMaken

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and Power&Market, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado and was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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