Once gone, public land is hard to get back again

Want to buy hunting property for less than 3 cents an acre? You’ll need to go back to 1803 and buy about 530,000,000 acres to get that bargain price.
That’s what the residents of New Jersey, Massachusetts, Delaware and 12 other states did when Thomas Jefferson completed the Louisiana Purchase. They coughed up the money to buy 827,000 square miles of distant Western land that doubled the size of the United States. No one knew exactly how much land was transferred from France to the U. S., so the per-acre cost isn’t precise. But adjusted for inflation, we’re still talking less than 50 cents an acre in today’s economy.
What a deal! Yet some Eastern taxpayers complained about covering the bill to buy the vast, Western wilderness from the French. Only a few hardy explorers had ventured into the virtually uncharted expanse, which was the homeland of an unknown number of Native Americans.
That wilderness, which fascinated President Jefferson and captivated the “voyage of discovery” expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, eventually was transformed into more than a dozen new states. Sadly, countless Native Americans were killed, displaced or forced onto reservations. But, the Louisiana Purchase now includes some of the most productive private agricultural land in the world, as well as public wild lands, rugged mountains, forests, prairies and coal and oil fields.
Our state, Iowa, became public land with the Louisiana Purchase, but soon federal policy called for privatizing land. Iowa’s rich soil and gentle topography became available for homesteading, purchase, and land grants just as millions of immigrants poured into our country and native-born Americans moved West in droves. Iowa was opened to settlement in 1833. By 1900, most of the state’s 36 million acres had been converted into 200,000 individual farms. In those 67 years — less than one human lifespan — Iowa’s wildlife-rich public land was almost completely changed to private ownership.
Iowa has public recreational and open space land today, but just a smidgen. Fewer than 700,000 total acres are protected by local, state and federal agencies. Compare that with more than 1 million acres devoted to roads and road rights-of-way. Private farms and farmland cover more than 26 million acres – more than 70 percent of the state.
Most hunting takes place on private land, which is open for general use only with the permission of benevolent landowners. Where there are public areas to hunt, hike and camp, almost all have had to be reacquired by the government after years in private ownership.
Linn County, Iowa, recently paid $7.1 million to buy 485 acres of private land that will become public parkland. That’s just a shade under $15,000 an acre for land that had been public after the Louisiana Purchase, but which private individuals bought for a song during the 1800s push to privatize the state.
We Iowans, who many would say have sacrificed our own natural lands to be able to grow food, fiber and fuel that benefit others, now take for granted the privilege of recreating on natural lands elsewhere. Many of us travel west to national parks, forests and wildlife refuges where we leave dollars earned from our agricultural economy to boost the tourism economies of the places we visit. But we also cherish just the notion of knowing the land is out there, whether we actually set foot on it or not.
Now, with the political climate in Washington, D.C., and some Western states, the pendulum may be swinging back toward privatization. But our public lands are a precious part of our proud American heritage — too precious to abandon to private interests. Because of the foresight of our ancestors, the people of this country (the taxpayers) own millions of acres where they can hunt, fish, camp, hike, bird-watch, boat and just savor the resources they collectively own. To sell or give away those lands for the financial benefit of a few would be a scar on the face of democracy and a one-way street on the road to oligarchy. ♦
Circle of Chiefs articles are written by those who have received the Circle of Chiefs Award for conservation reporting and coverage. The Circle of Chiefs honorees are considered OWAA’s conservation council. The article reflects the opinion of the author. If you’d like to add to the discussion, please send a letter to the editor.
— Rich Patterson is a fishery biologist who served as executive director of Dillon and Indian Creek Nature Center. He has been a freelance writer focusing on conservation and environmental issues since 1971.
— Following a 25-year career as an outdoor writer with The Des Moines Register, Larry Stone has spent another 20 years as an Iowa-based freelance conservation writer, photographer, blogger and lecturer.

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