Property Rights Crowd: Sell the National Parks

A classic tactic of market enclosure is now being directed at our precious national parks: slash budgets, bemoan the resulting problems, and then propose privatization as the “solution.” House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) has proposed that the federal government sell sixteen national parks and raise revenue by selling advertising and naming rights to park buildings. He estimated the sales would raise $2.4 billion over five years.

The parks earmarked for sale represent 23 percent of the National Park Service’s land, including major wildlife preserves in Alaska. The list also includes such historic sites as the place where Apache leader Geronimo surrendered to U.S. soldiers in 1886, the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House in Washington, D.C., and Eugene O’Neill’s house in Danville, California.

It’s hard to believe that any Member of Congress would dare to make such a proposal. Pombo apparently floated the idea as a tactical gambit: he thought that he could prod the House to authorize drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by posing a false choice — either raise $2.4 billion by selling leases for oil drilling in ANWR or raise $2.4 by selling off sixteen national parks. Pombo’s spokesman told the San Francisco Chronicle: “This document was intended to illustrate not just for leadership but for members of the House that the chairman feels we have no choice but to open [the Arctic refuge].” In other words, open up ANWR for drilling, or we’ll just have to sell off the national patrimony and sell advertising on National Park buses, trams and ferries.

It is a sign of our coarsened politics that any legislator would make such an outrageous proposal. Whether it was meant as a bullying tactic or a serious proposal, it’s a sign of the general contempt in Congress for the commonweal. The idea cannot be brushed off as a mere “conversation-starter” for legislative negotiations, as a Pombo spokesman later claimed. Sierra Club president Carl Pope pointed out that in the very same week that Pombo made his proposal, Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo introduced a bill to sell 15 percent of Interior Department lands to pay for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.

The idea of putting our national treasures “in play” is cynical and repugnant. But it is also a sign that the “private property” crowd is eager to flex its ideological muscles. In North Dakota, for example, the legislature actually tried to prevent the Nature Conservancy from buying ranch land, even though it was willing to pay the taxes and the farmer wanted to sell his land to the Conservancy.

In most free-market circles, this would normally be regarded as interfering with the “freedom to choose.” After all, there were two consenting parties entering into a contract. But it is becoming clear that, to property-rights advocates, the “freedom to choose” has a very specific, authoritarian meaning. The only acceptable property is that owned by individuals. Any other forms designed to benefit a collective good — even via such venerable institutions as land trusts — are cast as un-American.

We’ve seen how fanatics of the religious right have migrated from the fringe to the highest offices in American politics, forcing the public schools to teach Intelligent Design and ban stem-cell research. Who knows? If the property rights crowd plays its cards right, the idea of selling Yellowstone and Yosemite to private firms might be squarely on the table in the years to come.

Here are some of the National Park Service sites that Rep. Pombo suggested be sold:

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