Following my relocation from Hawaii in the early 1990s, I was assigned to the Department of Energy’s Hanford Reservation in Washington State. The orientation session included a bus tour that hit the Hanford highlights. Hanford, founded during the middle of WWII, was depopulated and expanded to a 670 square mile reservation during the Cold War (1947-1991) because of its isolation. The Columbia River wanders for about fifty miles providing a boundary with a buffer zone on the other side of the
river. The tour guide regaled us with tales of the nine reactors situated at the rivers’ edge (think about that), gave us a quick and dirty lecture of the mothballing process used to decommission the reactors, showed us the Navy’s reactor burial ground, and boasted of the plutonium production during its heyday that had fueled some 60,000 nuclear weapons. After years of eye candy living in the Pacific, I felt I had been dropped into the middle of a film noire. The Hanford Reservation rolled endlessly to the horizon in unrelieved black and white.
What an excellent reorientation to reality! January in Hanford is just plain cold and the heater in my work truck stayed pegged on atomic. My timing was, as usual, excellent. I rolled into Hanford right in the middle of a gorilla fight between DOE and its contractors. Experience had taught me to avoid these exercises in futility as someone always gets seriously wounded. Thus began my quest to find a way to be useful that also worked well with my ‘fun’ requirement.
Armed with a ream or so of paper and maps gathered from old-timers so I wouldn’t get too far off of the beaten path and into too much trouble, I took off to explore the reservation on my own. Assigned to an ornery old cuss that had been at Hanford for nearly 40-years, I was pleased when
he took the time to talk to me of the people who had been displaced during the Cold War expansion. His parents had been among the refugees. They thought they would get their land back when the government’s need was over. I tried, unsuccessfully, to find the location of the town of White Bluffs so I soldiered on to Hanford. My visit to the old Hanford town site, at this man’s insistence, was a turning point in my world view. When I read the monument and looked at the tree skeletons on a forgotten, years-dead lawn in front of an abandoned school, my spirit reeled. I was transported back to the Marshallese people who were made the same promise and still they sang their songs infused with that very hope.
How many times had land been taken and how much land did the DOE own? Let’s see, there is Rocky Flats in Colorado, Nevada Test Site, the Mounds in Ohio, Idaho, Washington, New Mexico, Alabama, Tennessee, Alaska, Hawaii, and California; just for starters. DOE owns 3.1 million acres, about 4,850 square miles. The vast majority of the land was acquired during the Cold War from small communities and farmers who believed they were doing their patriotic duty. It is no worse, I guess, than those communities and farms that lie under the reservoirs of Hoover, Hungry Horse, and Cordis dams as well as the Tennessee Valley Authority, TVA, so that we may have electricity.
The dawning realization of the enormity of the DOE landholdings was like taking a January dip in the Columbia River, chilling. Even more sobering is that the DOE does not even rank in the top tier of federal agency landholders; they are pikers. Although the federal government is not really certain how much land it owns, the Congressional Research Service issued a 2012 report on Federal Land Ownership in which it was estimated that the federal government owned between 635 and 640 million acres or 99,200-100,000 square miles. Of that, the Department of Interior, through four of its agencies, ‘manages’ 609 million acres or about 99,000 square miles. What that actually means is that about one-third of this country is out of commission. One-third of the land not only fails to generate wealth, it consumes resources. In the western U.S. about half of the land belongs to the federal government. In Nevada, the federal government owns 84 percent of the land.
If a single corporation owned one-third of the country there would be riots in the street. For one reason or another, U.S. citizens, the taxpayers, have accepted the government’s takings, displacement, and enormous growth in land ownership. I grew up with the sanctity of private property but I loved my time in the National Parks and Monuments in the West. Slowly, the Public Lands were taken from me as ‘wilderness’ areas of no trespassing were introduced and enlarged, roads were closed, access and use denied. Park Rangers became gun toting enforcers, the law I knew didn’t apply, and the concept of ‘land management’ became a joke of science. As the federal government consumes more and more land, even the requirement that property be taken either for government use or, by delegation, to third parties who will devote it to public use has become corrupt. Private property may now be ‘taken’ and, in turn, given to other private sector people for economic development. If my neighbor ‘needs’ my property more than I do, the courts have said they may have it. Of course, the evil deed (pun intended) must be done through a third party like a town or city government but it gets done none-the-less.
From the founding of the United States the concept and ideal of private property and contracts has flip-flopped several times. Property Rights in American History, prepared by James W. Ely Jr., a Milton R. Underwood Professor of Law and Professor of History at Vanderbilt University, is a good primer of property rights through U.S. history. As summarized by this engineer, strong protection for property and investment capital insures a good standard of living. After all, if we look back, the market economy increased national wealth and we, the people, benefited from that. Property ownership empowers individuals, which is why home ownership is the American Dream. In his paper, Ely states “…An economic system grounded on respect for private ownership tends to diffuse power and to strengthen individual autonomy from government. Property was therefore traditionally seen as a safeguard of liberty because it set limits on the reach of legitimate government…”
President Roosevelt’s New Deal initiated the latest round in the private property and contract debate and the federal government’s Cold War land grab added fuel to the fire that is today’s economy; $16 Trillion in debt, wars and rumors of wars, and an unknown number of our fellow citizens suffering the loss of their homes and or their jobs (the statistics are skewed so there is no real base line), the government grabs corporations and runs them, et cetera ad nauseam. Do you feel empowered or in control?
There is a way out. In 1999, DOE published a Record of Decision in the Federal Register in which it proposed that the buffer zone across the Columbia River at Hanford be returned to the private domain. The land was indeed returned to private land holders who converted it from scrub land to orchards and other crops. Once again that land is being ‘managed’ and is productive. It is contributing to the economy in a sustainable way not because of regulation but because to do otherwise would jeopardize the livelihood of the property holders and their families who do not own printing presses to fix their mistakes.