Monday, February 4, 2013

Land grabs: Monied interests and their government allies turning public lands into private gold mines

It's easy to get so caught up in your own community's fight to protect its resources and quality of life that you forget that the problems you perceive locally are sometimes part of something much larger.

Recent news items put plans to build a water museum in the Whittier Narrows Natural Area into what looks like a campaign by monied interests and their allies to turn public lands to private benefit.

In west Los Angeles, the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve has been selected by the Annenberg Foundation as the site for a pet adoption center and interpretive center. If that sounds familiar, it's because the foundation had originally selected public land in Rancho Palos Verdes for its project. Annenberg withdrew its project after opposition from the community and federal officials.

In the east, areas of wildlife habitat -- purchased with county tax dollars for parks and open space --  were being cleared by Texas-based Matrix Oil and the city of Whittier, for a proposed drilling project in the Whittier Hills even though the project is facing lawsuits and there are questions regarding Whittier's authority over the land and whether the city would see any money from the deal.

What all these stories -- Whittier Narrows, Ballona Wetlands, Whittier Hills -- have in common is the exploitation of public lands for what is essentially private benefit.

In the case of the Whittier Narrows wildlife sanctuary we see agencies, which have little or no background or interest in place-based nature education, seeking to build a monument to themselves. The better to announce to everyone -- the public, their rivals and partners, their superiors and subordinates -- that they are powerful and influential.

The Ballona case is an almost pure example of rent-seeking. Here we have a powerful organization, which is already receiving preferential tax treatment as a 501(c)3 charitable organization, seeking valuable public land at little or no cost to itself, for a project that, by rights, belongs in a heavily trafficked urban area. But that, of course, would entail buying or leasing land at market rates.

Take note, reader: Not only would Annenberg get precious public land for a song, but in the process it would deny a local city and its residents a legitimate contribution to the common good.

What is clear in all these cases is that powerful interests and their allies in government -- sometimes they are one and the same -- are trying to turn our public lands into their own private gold mines. 

Which seems like not such a new story at all. 

News links: