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Land Use

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Published: Wed, 13 Dec 2017 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Wed, 13 Dec 2017 16:39:27 -0500


Delaware's Odd, Beautiful, Contentious, Private Utopia

Sat, 14 Oct 2017 06:00:00 -0400

They held a town pageant in Arden, Delaware, on September 5, 1910: a medieval procession with performers dressed as knights, troubadours, pages, and squires. One Ardenite, an anarchist shoemaker named George Brown, played a beggar. This annoyed some of the other players, because no such role had actually been written. But Brown decided to add it to the program anyway, so he dressed in rags, caked himself with mud, and invaded the proceedings, taunting the other characters and demanding alms from the audience. Many "onlookers needed assurance," The Single Tax Review reported, that Brown "was only 'part of the show.'" This was a pattern: Brown liked to talk, and not everyone liked to listen to him. According to the novelist Upton Sinclair, who lived at the time in a little Arden house that his neighbors had dubbed the Jungalow, Brown insisted on "discussing sex questions" at the Arden Economic Club. When the club asked him to cut it out, Brown declared his free-speech right to continue and kept talking until he'd broken up the meeting. He broke up the next meeting too, and finally, Sinclair wrote, "declared it his intention to break up all future meetings." At this point some of the locals wanted to have him arrested for disturbing the peace. But that required outside help, because the town of Arden did not have a police force. In fact, the town of Arden didn't have a government at all. Not, at least, in the usual sense of the word. I should back up and explain a few things. Arden's origins go back to the Delaware Invasion of 1895 and '96, when the Single Tax movement tried to take over the state. The Single Taxers were followers of Henry George, a 19th century economist who argued that government should be financed solely by a tax on land values. No income tax, no sales tax, no tax on the improvements to a property—just one tax on land. The campaigners crisscrossed the state in armbands, knapsacks, and Union Army uniforms, delivering streetcorner speeches and singing Single Tax songs ("Get the landlords off your backs/With our little Single Tax/And there's lots of fun ahead for Delaware!"). More than a few got tossed in jail for their efforts. The invasion was a flop. A disaster, really. Not only did their gubernatorial candidate get only 2.4 percent of the vote, but within a year the movement's foes would insert a provision into the state constitution that made a George-style tax impossible. Unable to achieve their ideas at the ballot box, a group of Georgists decided to take another approach. In 1900 they acquired some farmland outside Wilmington, created what amounted to a community land trust, leased out plots to anyone who wanted to move in, levied rents based on the value of the unimproved land, and used the rent money to pay for public goods. In other words, they set up a private town and enacted the Single Tax program contractually. And with that double experiment in communalism and privatization, Arden was born. I just called Arden a "town," but for its first few years it was essentially a summer resort. (Or a summer camp—many of the part-time residents slept in tents.) But by the end of the decade, particularly after the founders made some tweaks to the lease agreement in 1908, a year-round community had formed. It was a largely lower-middle-class crowd, with a high number of artists and craftsmen; it attracted not just Georgists but other sorts of nonconformists, from socialists to vegetarians. And anarchists, like our sexually explicit friend George Brown, who kept a cottage there with his common-law wife. The Ardenfolk had institutions—the trustees who set the rents had a certain degree of power, and there were regular town meetings too—but they weren't a municipality and they didn't have any police. So in July 1911, aggravated by the shoemaker's antics, a group left the town limits, found the appropriate authorities, and swore out a warrant for Brown's arrest. Not everyone in the colony liked this idea. "They did not want any 'laws or lawing in Arden,'" The New York Times reported, because "once the [...]

How Obama's EPA Nearly Bankrupted John Duarte's Farm

Thu, 14 Sep 2017 13:05:00 -0400

EPA Chief Scott Pruitt has set out to transform the agency he leads to a greater extent than any of Trump's other cabinet appointees, pledging to end what he dubbed the agency's "anti-energy agenda" by loosening requirements on carbon emissions and eliminating land use restrictions. In his first speech to EPA employees, Pruitt laid out his goal of returning the agency to its core focus of protecting the environment while following what he called "the letter of the law." "I believe that we as an agency, and we as a nation, can be both pro-energy and jobs and pro-environment," Pruitt told his staff. Environmentalists vehemently opposed Pruitt's appointment, depicting him as a climate change denier determined to undermine the EPA's core mission of protecting the environment. One of Pruitt's first targets is a controversial rule on water pollution put in place by the Obama administration that he deemed a "power grab" by environmental regulators. To better understand why property rights advocates applauded the move, consider the case of fourth-generation farmer John Duarte, who has fought a protracted and costly legal battle with federal regulators over how to till his 450-acre farm in Tehama County, California. In 2012, the Army Corps of Engineers, working in conjunction with the EPA, accused Duarte of damaging wetland features on his property. He was hit with $30 million in fines and restoration fees. Duarte's troubles stemmed from a 2015 provision in the Clean Water Act known as the Waters of the United States rule that was meant to better protect large bodies of water by regulating use of the streams, ponds, and ditches that flow into them. The EPA has used this provision to micromanage private land use. The agency accused Duarte of mismanaging the wetland areas located on his property, claiming that his four-inch plow furrows created small mountain ranges. They contend Duarte should have obtained a permit before tilling his own land. "The average time to obtain a Clean Water Act permit is close to two years, and the average cost just to hire the consultants and do the studies to get permits approaches a quarter of a million dollars," says Anthony François, a lawyer with the Pacific Legal Foundation who represented Duarte in his case against the government. "Clearly if you had to undertake that kind of cost and time just to get the necessary permit to plow your fields every year you're not going to grow a lot of food." In 2016, attorneys general from 31 states (including Pruitt) challenged the Obama administration's overreach on the Clean Water Act. The case is still active in federal court. University of Virginia Law Professor Jason Scott Johnston, who is also an adjunct scholar at the libertarian CATO Institute, believes it's likely the Supreme Court would strike down the 2015 water regulation. He says that the Obama administration expanded the definition of wetlands beyond the parameters set by the Court in the 2007 Rapanos v. United States decision. "The broad trend of environmental regulation during the Obama administration was to use the coercive threat or reality of regulation simply to try to shut down entire industries and entire types of economic activity," says Johnston. "They have promulgated a definition of wetlands which clearly contradicts what the Supreme Court said." In February, President Donald Trump signed an executive order instructing the EPA to repeal the Waters of the United States rule, but getting the regulation off the books could take several years and be delayed by legal challenges from environmental groups. Meanwhile, Duarte settled his case in August for $1.1 million to avoid paying a significantly larger fine. He hopes Pruitt's focus on regulatory rollback will restore farmers' property rights. "We become peasants where these federal prosecutors can come in like the Sheriff of Nottingham, decide for themselves what they think a family can pay," Duarte says. "If the federal prosecutors can come on this land with this set of facts, there is no farm in America that[...]

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke Review Proposes Shrinking 4 of 27 National Monuments

Fri, 25 Aug 2017 18:15:00 -0400

Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has sent a report to President Donald Trump in which he reportedly proposes to shrink the size of four of the 27 National Monuments he was asked to review. Specifically, Zinke is recommending that the area of Utah's Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante and Oregon's Cascade-Siskiyou National Monuments be reduced. The 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument was established by President Bill Clinton in 1996. The 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument was created by President Barack Obama in December last year and he expanded the Cascade-Siskiyou Monument created by Clinton from 65,000 to 113,00 acres in January, 2017. Naturally, environmental activists are livid. "No president has ever shown such disregard for the public's desire to protect our public lands or such blatant pandering to the industries that want to drill, mine, and log them," asserts the Sierra Club. Both Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears Monuments were designated by Democratic presidents who had lost badly among voters in Utah. Both monuments were opposed by the Utah state legislature and the state's congressional delegation. In fact, the Clinton administration notified the Utah congressional delegation and state governor only 24 hours before the ceremony establishing the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument. Clinton was apparently eager to block a proposed coal mine in the region which, by some estimates, would have produced nearly $1 trillion in coal over thirty years. As recently as this past February, the Utah legislature passed and the governor signed a resolution urging that the boundaries of the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument be reduced. Among other things, the resolution declared that the creation of the monument has "had a negative impact on the prosperity, development, economy, custom, culture, heritage, educational opportunities, health, and well-being of local communities." Similarly, the state legislature passed in February and the governor signed a resolution urging President Trump to rescind the Bears Ears National Monument designation. Presidents have the power to designate national monuments under the Antiquities Act of 1906 which states: The President of the United States is authorized, in his discretion, to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments, and may reserve as a part thereof parcels of land, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected. Can the Trump administration revoke or substantially revise national monument designations? Environmental activists argue that the Antiquities Act is one way ratchet - subsequent administrations do not have the power to undo the creation national monuments. While contested by other scholars, legal analyses by the Congressional Research Service however suggest that while presidents may not have the power to revoke previous designations, they do apparently have the authority to modify them, including making adjustments with regard to their boundaries. This appears to be the strategy being recommended by Zinke; modification, not revocation. The federal government owns about one-third of the land area of the country which provokes conflicts over its management between central government bureaucracies beholden to national environmental groups versus local communities that use and depend on the resources located on adjacent federal lands. It is not surprising that conflicts between locals and federal bureaucrats are more contentious in Utah since the federal government owns about 65 percent of that state's landscape. Are bitter fights over the proper use of government-owned lands inevitable? Perhaps not. "It is clear that the politicized approach to national monu[...]

Plow Field, Pay Government $35 Million?

Thu, 25 May 2017 16:45:00 -0400

(image) A California farmer wheat farmer faces up to $35 million in fines for violating federal wetlands regulations. But it's unclear whether the law in question was supposed to apply to him, and the rules themselves represent a decades-long effort to "make everything a wetland," essentially depriving individuals of due process protections for alleged crimes against the environment.

The farmer in question is John Duarte, who runs Duarte Nursery near Modesto. In 2012 he purchased 450 acres of land, planning to grow wheat on it. Duarte knew the property contained swales and wetlands, which are considered "waters of the United States" and therefore fall under the purview of the Clean Water Act. But the act includes exemptions for "established (ongoing) farming...activites," including plowing. So he thought that he was in the clear, legally speaking. He also hired a consultant to map out where the wetlands were, so as to avoid places where he might cause harm.

One of Duarte's lawyers told the Redding Record Searchlight that his client did plow some of the wetlands, but the attorney insists that there was no significant damage and that the plowing went no deeper than 7 inches. The government disagrees, claiming that Duarte used a ripper that dug 10 inches into the soil. Either way, the authorities argue that the Clean Water Act's exemption didn't apply to Duarte because his land had not been farmed for at least 20 years; therefore, the government concluded, he was bringing new land into production.

Duarte was able to grow the wheat, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the California Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board ordered him not to harvest it, telling him he'd need a permit to work the land.

"The case is the first time that we're aware of that says you need to get a permit to plow to grow crops," attorney Anthony Francois of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a public interest law firm which has helped told the Record Searchlight. "How do you impose a multimillion penalty on someone for thinking the law says what it says?"

Duarte sued California and the Army Corps of Engineers for violating his due process rights, since they sent their cease-and-desist order without a hearing. The government then countersued over the alleged Clean Water Act violation. Last June, District Judge Kimberly Mueller issued a summary judgement in favor of the Army Corps of Engineers, finding that Duarte's due process rights had not been violated, that the cease-and-desist letter was not an "enforcement action," and that the Clean Water Act's exemption didn't apply. The case now goes to a penalty trial; the prosecution is asking for a fines totalling nearly $35 million.

Critics of the Obama administration often pointed to the case as an example of regulatory overreach. With a new president's deregulatory rhetoric in the air, Duarte's attorneys hope to work out a better deal. They met with the Justice Department earlier this month to discuss the prospect of a settlement.

Zoning Laws in New York, San Francisco, and San Jose Cut Americans' Wages by $8,775

Thu, 25 May 2017 15:30:00 -0400

(image) Why is housing in the coastal enclaves so damned expensive? The median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in New York City is now running at $4,260 a month; in San Francisco, the figure is $4,600. The national average, by contrast, is about $1,300. What gives?

Blame zoning. The Wharton Residential Land Use Regulatory Index reports that land use restrictions in New York, San Francisco, and San Jose are among the tightest in the country.

You don't have to live in New York, San Francisco, or San Jose to feel the effects. A new study by economists Chang-Tai Hsieh of the University of Chicago and Enrico Moretti of Stanford measured increases in the total factor productivity—that is, the efficiency with which inputs like labor and technology are combined to yield outputs—in 220 cities from 1964 to 2009. They concluded that onerous land use restrictions in high-productivity cities have huge spillover effects on the rest of the U.S. economy.

In a nutshell, artifically high housing costs keep workers from moving from low-productivity areas to high-productivity cities, thus depressing wages and economic growth. Those workers don't just get stuck in low-wage regions: Because they're stuck, job competition drives down the local wages even more. Meanwhile, most of the extra output produced in New York, the San Francisco Bay Area, and other overregulated regions are poured into housing costs rather than invested in more productive assets. In that way, highly restrictive zoning depresses economic growth and GDP.

"In the 1960s, developers found it easy to do business in much of the country," the Harvard economist Edward Glaeser noted in 2014. "In the past 25 years, construction has come to face enormous challenges from any local opposition. In some areas it feels as if every neighbor has veto rights over every project."

If land use regulations in New York and the Bay Area were set equal to the median U.S. city, those area's average wages would be 25 percent lower, but reduced housing costs would have more than made up for that. Furthermore, the researchers calculate, GDP would be 8.9 percent higher (as of 2009), translating into an addtional $8,775 in average wages for all American workers.

Still, it could have been worse. In the period studied by Hsieh and Moretti, Southern cities tended to eschew highly restrictive land use regulations. As a result, they have much lower housing costs and were responsible for about 33 percent U.S. aggregate GDP growth. If the big Southern cities had adopted the median U.S. level of residential zoning, the economists calculate, the change would have reduced GDP growth by 25 percent.

Gurgaon: India's Private City

Thu, 15 Dec 2016 12:15:00 -0500

The last time I was in India, it was a familiar scene. The rickshaws rumbling through busy bazaars. Shoppers haggling over everything from gemstones to silk sarees. Pilgrims prostrating their way to salvation. Authentic street food, enhanced by locally-sourced infectious pathogens. This time around, I knew the country had changed. I wanted to see the effects of thirteen years of market reform and hypergrowth since my last visit. So I summoned an Uber (already something new) and headed 15 miles south of my Delhi hotel. As the crumbling roads of the capital city opened up into a 32-lane expressway, the old India I thought I knew, gave way to the future. I'd arrived in the city of Gurgaon. It's hard to imagine, but twenty-five years ago, there was nothing here. No high-rises. No kitschy shopping malls with Vegas-like trompe l'oeil ceilings. No 27-hole Jack Nicklaus signature golf courses. Stretching back to medieval times, Gurgaon was nothing more than a plot of rocky soil with a small marketplace. Until six years ago, it didn't even have a municipal government. So what happened? When Delhi banned private real estate development in the 1950s, Kushal Pal Singh began buying land south of the city limits. His company, Delhi Land and Finance, offered cash and equity stakes to farmers in Gurgaon. Many of these cowherds became instant crorepatis—millionaires, in the local lingo—while KP Singh would become the fifth richest man in India by the turn of the century. The state of Haryana eased land use restrictions, making it easy for developers to use their land as they saw fit. But once land was converted from farmland to commercial use, it was still classified as rural. That's how Gurgaon ended up as a city without a city government. Haryana also allowed women to work past 6pm—a bold policy decision in a socially conservative country. Without flexible labor laws, India would never have been able to develop its famous call center industry, where phone operators must work through the night in order to match times around the world. Maruti was the first to arrive with an auto manufacturing plant in the 1980s. As India stepped back from socialism in the 90s, foreign investment bypassed Delhi, and poured into Gurgaon. When General Electric set up shop, hundreds of multinationals followed. Soon Gurgaon was generating middle class jobs by the hundreds of thousands. Today, it boasts an absurd 30 percent annual GDP growth and the third highest per-capital income in India. Over time, other developers have entered the market, competing with DLF, and diluting its share of Gurgaon. But DLF remains the dominant provider of roads, sewage systems, security, and India's only private fire department. While Gurgaon isn't exactly crime free—the crime rate is on par with Phoenix, Arizona—it doesn't lack for protection. 35,000 private security guards keep a watchful eye on the city, compared with 3,000 public officers. Gurgaon's services and cleanliness are like nothing else I've seen in the country. India's only privately run metro system is fast, modern, and efficient. Employees compulsively sweep floors that already look spotless. It's unclear if Gurgaon's metro turns a profit. But as it increases the value of land owned by DLF and others, it may have already accomplished its mission. I'd like to tell you that Gurgaon has solved all of India's problems. But even here, in the beating heart of hypergrowth, the worst of Old India stubbornly refuses to die. Sixteen percent of Gurgaon's population lives in slums. If that seems like a lot to you, the shocker is that it's less than the average Indian city. There are 150 million fewer poor people in India since my last visit. That's half of the population of the United States, lifted out of the slums. India's achievements over the past decade are awe-inspiring. But as my own country turns its back on the same global markets that transformed a rocky patch of farm[...]

Federal Overreach in Search of More Prison Time Cost Them a Conviction, Says Juror in Oregon's Malheur Wildlife Center Occupation Acquittal

Sat, 29 Oct 2016 17:45:00 -0400

Why did the jury in the trial of seven occupiers on trial for actions connected to the occupation earlier this year of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge acquit them? Because of the specifics of what they were charged with. And what they were charged with is likely because of a federal desire to maximize the potential time they'd spend in prison. Pace the hundreds of angry progressive in my social networking world in a bloody sad rage over the fact these folk didn't spend more time in jail than they already have in the process of trial, the mere act of being on federal property after closing hours, that is, the mere fact of the occupation itself, is not what they were charged with. The specific charges, as noted here Thursday, were "conspiring to impede federal employees through intimidation, threat or force. Four had additional charges of having guns in a federal facility, and two were charged with theft of government property." A juror spoke via email to Oregon Live about how that decision on the Feds' part, one almost certainly motivated by a desire to get potentially more prison time, messed them up: "It should be known that all 12 jurors felt that this verdict was a statement regarding the various failures of the prosecution to prove 'conspiracy' in the count itself – and not any form of affirmation of the defense's various beliefs, actions or aspirations,'' Juror 4 wrote Friday in a lengthy email to The Oregonian/OregonLive.... Juror 4 noted the panel couldn't simply rely on the defendants' "defining actions'' [that is, the occupation per se] to convict.... "But we were not asked to judge on bullets and hurt feelings, rather to decide if any agreement was made with an illegal object in mind,'' the [juror] wrote. "It seemed this basic, high standard of proof was lost upon the prosecution throughout.''.... Defense lawyers urged jurors in closing arguments not to mix-up the "effect'' of the occupation – which undoubtedly kept federal employees from doing their jobs - from the "intent'' of the occupiers... "Inference, while possibly compelling, proved to be insulting or inadequate to 12 diversely situated people as a means to convict,'' the juror wrote. "The air of triumphalism that the prosecution brought was not lost on any of us, nor was it warranted given their burden of proof.''... It seems this juror has some of the same type of friends on social networking as I do: [the juror] said he is "baffled'' by what he described as observers' "flippant sentiments'' in the wake of the jury's acquittals. "Don't they know that 'not guilty' does not mean innocent?'' he wrote. "It was not lost on us that our verdict(s) might inspire future actions that are regrettable, but that sort of thinking was not permitted when considering the charges before us.''.... The smoking gun point proving the prosecutors tripped themselves up with their desire for vengeance on the occupiers: ... many of the jurors questioned the judge about why the federal government chose the "conspiracy charge.'' He said he learned that a potential alternate charge, such as criminal trespass, wouldn't have brought as significant a penalty. The charge of conspiring to impede federal employees from carrying out their official work through intimidation, threat or force brings a maximum sentence of six years in prison. Federal criminal trespass is at worst a misdemeanor, which generally has a maximum possible prison penalty of a year. The structure of the charges meant that if the conspiracy part wasn't proven, the specific gun charge also fell. The juror's final word: "We all queried about alternative charges that could stick and were amazed that this 'conspiracy' charge seemed the best possible option."[...]

Seven Occupiers of Oregon's Malheur Wildlife Refuge Acquitted on All Charges

Thu, 27 Oct 2016 20:35:00 -0400

An Oregon jury today acquitted seven people being tried for their roles in the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year. All seven were facing charges for conspiring to impede federal employees through intimidation, threat or force. Four had additional charges of having guns in a federal facility, and two were charged with theft of government property. Among the acquitted were two sons of Cliven Bundy, famous for his role in an armed standoff with federal agents in Nevada over disputes on grazing fees the Bureau of Land Management insisted he owed. (Bundy himself was arrested in February over that 2014 incident, and a trial is ahead.) The defendants were: Ammon and Ryan Bundy, Jeff Banta, Shawna Cox, David Fry, Kenneth Medenbach, and Neil Wampler. Seattle Times summed up the background of the case: In closing arguments that stretched out over two days, prosecutors stressed that the defendants were not being put on trial for their beliefs, and had an absolute right to protest federal government actions. But they argued that the defendants' actions stepped over the line into a criminal conspiracy to occupy the refuge and — through the use of armed guards and other acts of intimidation — keep federal employees away from their offices south of Burns. Bundy, in testimony on his own behalf, called the takeover a "hard stand" against the return to prison of two Oregon ranchers, Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven Hammond, after a federal judge ruled that they had not served long enough sentences on arson charges. The takeover ended peacefully as the last four occupiers surrendered on Feb. 11, but before that, on Jan. 26, LaVoy Finicum, a folksy, articulate rancher who had emerged as a spokesman for the movement, was shot to death by law-enforcement officials. Among others arrested in connection with the case, 11 pled guilty earlier and others face their own trials ahead in February. More details on the earlier guilty pleas from Oregon Live. Oregon Live's report from today, mostly written before re-deliberation in the case began this morning. Oregon Public Broadcasting, which has been covering the case extensively, summed up the arguments: The government relied heavily on testimony from law enforcement, including Harney County Sheriff David Ward, as well as dozens of FBI agents who responded to the occupation or processed evidence at the Malheur refuge after the occupation ended. "At the end of the day, there is an element of common sense that demonstrates the guilt of these defendants," Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight said during his closing arguments during the trial. "These defendants took over a wildlife refuge and it wasn't theirs." ....the defense sought to make its case about a political protest – one about protesting the federal government's ownership and management of public lands. "The people have to insist that the government is not our master; they are our servants," Ryan Bundy said during his closing statement to the jury. Some interesting elements of the trial as it unfolded: • A juror was replaced by an alternate and deliberations began from scratch this week, after a juror sent a note to the judge asking: "Can a juror, a former employee of the Bureau of Land Management, who opens their remarks in deliberations by stating 'I am very biased' be considered an impartial judge in this case?" • One of the defense lawyers was tased and arrested in court today, according to the Seattle Times: Ammon Bundy's attorney Marcus Mumford argued his client should be released from confinement while U.S. District Court Judge Anna Brown said he must be returned to the custody of federal marshals since he still faced charges in Nevada. Mumford's protests in the Portland courtroom grew louder and louder until he was finally tackled and tased by marshals, according to Cox and another member of the[...]

One-Fifth of Earth's Plants Threatened with Extinction

Tue, 10 May 2016 16:31:00 -0400

The highly respected Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, has just issued The State of the World's Plants 2016 in which its researchers estimate that perhaps one-fifth of the world's 391,000 vascular plant species may be at risk of extinction. The chief reason plant species are threatened is human activity, specifically land use changes such as farming, raising livestock, logging, and land development. The Kew findings rely heavily on research published last year, "Green Plants in the Red," in PLoS One by a team of mostly British researchers associated with the Natural History Museum and Kew Gardens. According to the journal metrics that article received no media coverage, which may be why the results are being updated and republished in the splashy report. To try to estimate how many plants are threatened with extinction, the researchers took a random sample consisting of some 7,000 plant species and then checked to see how they are faring using data from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The IUCN constructs and maintains various databases called Red Lists aiming to monitor the conservation status of species populations. The PLoS One study reported, "More than 20% of plant species assessed are threatened with extinction, and the habitat with the most threatened species is overwhelmingly tropical rain forest, where the greatest threat to plants is anthropogenic habitat conversion, for arable and livestock agriculture, and harvesting of natural resources." The study also calculated that "arable farming affects 60% of threatened species, while livestock farming affects 47%, logging affects 38%, targeted harvesting affects 25% and fires (natural or man-made) also affect 25% of threatened species." In addition, the PLoS One study estimated that with 79% of threatened plant species are found in forests, followed by 19% of threatened species in shrubland, 13% in rocky outcrops, 10% in savanna and also 10% in grassland  percentages do not sum to 100% as some species occur in more than one habitat). The fewest threatened species were found in deserts and wetlands, largely because those areas are least suited for agriculture. So that's the bad news. But the good news is peak farmland and plantation forestry. As I report in my chapter on extinction in my book The End of Doom: Considering that agriculture is the most expansive and intensive way in which people transform natural landscapes, the really good news is that the amount of land globally devoted to food production may be falling as population growth slows and agricultural productivity increases. “We believe that projecting conservative values for population, affluence, consumers, and technology shows humanity peaking in the use of farmland,” conclude Jesse Ausubel, the director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University, and his colleagues in their 2013 article “Peak Farmland and the Prospect for Land Sparing.” They add, “Global arable land and permanent crops spanned 1,371 million hectares in 1961 and 1,533 million hectares in 2009, and we project a return to 1,385 million hectares in 2060.” As a result of these trends, humanity will likely restore at least 146 million hectares, an area two and a half times that of France or the size of ten Iowas, and possibly much more land. “Another 50 years from now, the Green Revolution may be recalled not only for the global diffusion of high-yield cultivation practices for many crops, but as the herald of peak farmland and the restoration of vast acreages of Nature,” write the researchers. “Now we are confident that we stand on the peak of cropland use, gazing at a wide expanse of land that will be spared for Nature.” Also in The End of Doom I note: Resources for the Future analyst Roger Sedjo estimates that most of the world’s wood products coul[...]

Landmarking Is Turning New York City Into a Life-Sized Historical Diorama

Sat, 30 Apr 2016 15:00:00 -0400

New York City's Landmarks Preservation Act was intended to protect about three or four "historic districts"—Brooklyn Heights, Greenwich Village, etc.—preservationist James Van Derpool told the New York City Council in 1964. That's all "anyone had seriously considered."

The Landmarks Act  was passed the following year thanks in part to Van Derpool's testimony. A half-century later the city has protected 138 historic districts. Nearly a third of the structures in Manhattan have been landmarked. As I argued in a Reason TV video published last year, entire swaths of New York City may as well be encased in a life-sized historical diorama. Out-of-control landmarking is undermining the process of creative (image) destruction that made New York, well, New York.

This month, the Landmarks Commission designated a giant Pepsi-Cola sign on the Queens waterfront (which was in no danger of being torn down for what it's worth), and it voted to extend the Park Slope Historic District to include an additional 292 buildings.

What justifies these two designations? Landmarks Commission Chairwoman Meenakshi Srinivasan was left straining. She lauded the Pepsi sign for "its prominent siting" and "frequent appearances in pop culture." The Park Slope blocks are part of an area, Srinivasan explained, that "owes its cohesiveness to its tree-lined streets, predominant residential character, and its high level of architectural integrity."

If "prominent siting," "tree-lined streets," "residential character," and "architectural integrity" are grounds for landmarking, what's to stop the Commission from declaring every square inch of the Big Apple too precious to ever change?

Click below to watch "How New York City's Landmarks Preservation Act Bulldozed the Future:"

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Can Blockchain Technology Reduce Third-World Poverty?

Sat, 30 Apr 2016 10:30:00 -0400

In The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else (2000), Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto argued that the underlying cause of Third-World poverty is weak property rights. Citizens of poor countries can't securely develop plots of land or put them up as collateral because they don't have clear legal titles. In a world "where ownership of most assets is difficult to trace and validate and is governed by no legally recognizable set of rules," de Soto wrote, "most assets, in short, are dead capital." De Soto is now part of a new initiative to use the "blockchain," the technology that undergirds the digital currency Bitcoin, to solve the dead capital problem. The San Francisco-based Bitcoin company BitFury announced last week that it was working with de Soto and the Republic of Georgia on a project to use blockchain technology to build a new land registry, as Forbes first reported. "By building a blockchain-based property registry," one Georgian government official said in a statement, the country "can lead the world in changing the way land titling is done and pave the way to additional prosperity for all." A "blockchain" is essentially an online database with attributes that make it well-suited to protecting the integrity of land registries. The first thing that sets blockchains apart from other databases is that anyone with a computer and an internet connection can download a complete copy. And the information contained in the file is constantly updated through the internet (roughly every 10 minutes in the case of the Bitcoin blockchain). This means the most up-to-date information is always publicly accessible. And the government has no power to tamper with or delete the information stored on a blockchain because the data can only be altered by using secret passwords dispersed among users. Yet uploading actual land titles to a blockchain is impractical because these distributed databases aren't designed to hold very much information. So companies in this space are devising elegant ways to anchor large data sets to the blockchain in ways that piggyback on its security and immutability, even when the specific information itself is stored elsewhere. BitFury isn't the first company to work in this space. The Austin, Texas-based company technology company Factom has been in talks since 2015 with the government of Honduras to use blockchain technology to build a secure land registry in that country. Currently, Honduras stores its title records in a room at the bottom of "dusty stairs" in a "nasty old government building," Factom CEO Peter Kirby said in an interview last year with Reason. Until recently, the room had no door. "Anybody could go in, pull down a book, open up the spine, and replace a title record with a new title record," Kirby said. Some government bureaucrats have altered the records to assign themselves beachfront property. The Honduran government did at one point attempt to digitize its land records, but the database it built was unuseable. A tamper-proof land-titling system, says Kirby, will lead poor countries to build "all of the infrastructure we take for granted in the developed world." For more on blockchain technology, click below to watch a recent Reason TV video on Ethereum, a new blockchain platform that's well-suited for land registries and many many other types of applications: src="" frameborder="0" height="340" width="560">[...]

Whatever's Going on in Oregon, It's Not Terrorism

Thu, 07 Jan 2016 00:15:00 -0500

A key to understanding the political world lies in realizing that the words terrorism and terrorist are inherently political terms. This has been clear in international affairs, but we now see this in domestic matters, specifically the case involving ranchers Dwight and Steve Hammond and the takeover of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service building in Harney County, Oregon. The Hammonds have been imprisoned under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, an ostentatiously get-tough bill —passed after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building—favored by congressional Republicans and signed by triangulating Democratic President Bill Clinton, who was seeking reelection that year and whose wife, the hawkish Hillary Clinton, is seeking the presidency today. Among other things, the Act limits habeas corpus relief in federal courts for those claiming to have been unlawfully imprisoned. The words terrorism and terrorist are also used to describe the people now occupying the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in sympathy with the Hammonds. CNN reports that "progressive" opponents of the occupiers refer to them as "YallQaeda" and "vanilla ISIS." Some urge government violence against them. Is this description fair? One can answer this question regardless of what one thinks of the Hammonds and the occupiers. If terrorism has any reasonable referent, it is the use of violence against noncombatants for a political purpose. The point is to terrorize by killing or injuring noncombatants, or destroying their property, in an effort to effect change. Nowhere do we see such violence in either the Hammonds' case or the occupation of the government building. The actions that brought criminal charges against the Hammonds consisted in setting two fires on their own land in 2001 and 2006, the first to destroy invasive vegetation, the second ostensibly to protect against a wildfire on adjacent land controlled by the central government. On both occasions the fires unintentionally spread to the government-controlled land. The Hammonds put out the first fire; the second fire reportedly endangered government firefighters, whom the Hammonds knew were in the vicinity. Even if we grant the worst allegations—that the Hammonds wrongfully declined to inform the government that it would be setting the fires and that one fire was allegedly set to cover up poaching—the actions look nothing like terrorism. No one was intentionally threatened, and no one was injured or killed. So why were the cases prosecuted under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years? Even if we make the dubious concession that the Act was a good-faith attempt to fight bona fide terrorism, what does it have to do with the Hammonds? As for the occupiers of the government building, who now call themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, again, where's the terrorism? Yes, some occupiers are armed. But the building was unoccupied when they entered it, and no one was threatened, much less harmed or killed. It's reported that roads around the building are open. The news media come and go at will. In neither case was anyone terrorized. To be sure, the occupiers have a political objective, to pressure the central government into giving up control of its massive land holdings. Terrorism, however, requires a particular kind of violence along with a political motive. Critics describe the occupiers as white supremacists. I don't know if they are, although John Ritzheimer, a spokesman for the occupiers, is an anti-Muslim[...]

Matt Welch Talks Oregon Standoff on All in with Chris Hayes Tonight

Mon, 04 Jan 2016 18:09:00 -0500

The standoff in Oregon has already prompted a lot of silly culture-war commentary, and disappointingly scant analysis of the precipitating legal conflicts (though this historical overview of standoffs is useful). I shall attempt to address both issues tonight on MSNBC's All in with Chris Hayes at 8:40ish p.m. Tune in, and heckle me on Twitter!

Rand Paul, White House, Want Oregon Standoff Resolved Cautiously. Why Don’t More Liberals Agree?

Mon, 04 Jan 2016 16:50:00 -0500

Various Republican candidates are calling for a peaceful resolution to the armed occupation of a remote federal outpost in Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Sen. Rand Paul had this to say, according to The Washington Post: "I’m sympathetic to the idea that the large collection of federal lands ought to be turned back to the states and the people, but I think the best way to bring about change is through politics," Paul told the Washington Post in an interview. "That's why I entered the electoral arena. I don’t support any violence or suggestion of violence toward changing policy." Sen. Ted Cruz called on the protesters to “stand down peaceably.” Sen. Marco Rubio urged them to “follow the law.” The White House maintains the standoff is a matter for local authorities, and has urged caution. Given that no one’s life is currently threatened by the antics of the Bundy family, this restrained approach seems especially wise. It’s a shame, then, that so many left-leaning commentators—having branded the ranchers as a bunch of terrorists intent on committing imminent violence—seem dismissive, or at least dissatisfied, with this wait-and-see approach. The Daily Beast’s Sally Kohn has accused the federal government of encouraging right-wing militias by failing to crackdown on them with extreme prejudice. Kohn claims that authorities should have thrown the book at Cliven Bundy and his supporters after the previous standoff. “Talk about being ‘soft on terrorism’,” she writes: What’s even more disturbing, perhaps, is that nothing has changed in terms of the federal government’s hyper-passive response to such flagrant acts of menacing and threats of domestic terrorism. The Department of Justice did, wisely, revive the Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee—recognizing the need to defend against and prevent the very real and comparable threat posed, for instance, by mostly white anti-government zealots and not just Muslim radicals. Yet the FBI said it was seeking a “peaceful” end to the standoff, and there are reportedly no signs of law enforcement being anywhere near the building. So maybe it’s not even a “standoff” if the federal government is standing down. Of course there’s a strategic case to be made for a cautious approach on the part of the federal government that doesn’t escalate violence nor feed a cult of martyrdom within the anti-government extremist movement as happened after Ruby Ridge and Waco. That would seem jarring enough juxtaposed with the violent over-policing of black Americans and conservative calls for blanket scrutiny against all Muslims. But in the face of the very direct connection between the Bundy conflict and the Oregon standoff, and the SPLC’s evidence that the government’s non-response simply gave anti-government extremists more power, the government now seems naïve about right-wing extremism at best and encouraging at worst. Since Kohn references the “violent over-policing of black Americans and conservative calls for blanket scrutiny against all Muslims,” one might expect her to better understand why relentlessly demonizing misunderstood groups and exaggerating the threat they pose is a bad thing. I suspect she can’t see beyond her own partisan lens: the left-leaning protesters she respects and agrees with are innocent victims, the right-leaning protesters she despises are a threat to the republic. It’s important to note that this is the same kind of paranoia about “the other” that animates Donald Trump and his supporters. The calls to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. and the calls to crack down on right-wing militias aren’t so different from one another, even th[...]

The Destruction of Penn Station Led to the Landmarks Preservation Movement. But Was the Old Structure Worth Saving After All?

Sun, 19 Apr 2015 09:33:00 -0400

In all the hoopla surrounding the 50th anniversary of New York's Landmarks Preservation Act—Mayor Robert F. Wagner signed the legislation exactly a half century ago today—you'll see plenty of photos of the old Penn Station taken around the time of its 1910 opening. These images depict the grand, light-filled main hall modeled after the Baths of Caracalla and the spectacular iron-and-glass train shed in its pristine state. Another series of photos shows the station being taken apart in the 1960s. In this set of images, the station looks like an ancient Roman palace; it's as if the cranes pulling it apart are destroying the very bedrock of Western civilization. "Seven-year-olds gasp...[when] we show them the old Penn Station," Tara Kelly, the executive director of Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, told the New York Times at an event last week celebrating the law's half-centennial.  Penn Station's destruction in the mid-1960s was a call to arms for the landmarks movement, leading directly to the passage of the 1965 law. Preservationists trot out these photos capable of leaving second graders breathless to remind us of why we need a government-appointed commission to save our historic buildings from cold market logic. But this narrative is as one-sided as those photos. Profit-driven developers left to their own devices value wonderful old buildings as much as the general public they serve, but the old Penn Station was a deeply flawed structure. It emphasized form over function, so it was never a particularly good train station. And New Yorkers didn't care for it very much—when it was still around, at least. It's easy to revere the dead. What you won't see are pictures of Penn Station as it looked in its final years, when the entire building was smothered in inches of grime and its cracked windows were patched over with sheets of metal. There were “color ads…like blasphemous utterances in the marbled halls…automobiles revolved on turntables; [and] shops and stands…added in jazzy cacophony,” The New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable recalled in a 1966 article. So what? Grand Central Terminal was once falling apart and then it was lovingly restored in 2007. Couldn't Penn Station also have been returned to its original grandeur? Perhaps, but there would have been no way to defray the cost of its upkeep because unlike its east side counterpart, Penn Station wasn't built to neatly integrate retail space into its corridors. And its high glass windows made it unusually expensive to clean and maintain. The Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) company, which built and operated the station, declared bankruptcy in 1968, so if the building had survived, maintaining it would have likely fallen either to the city or the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). In the early 1970s, the MTA struggled to finance basic maintenance costs and upgrades. (Remember what the MTA-run subways looked like in the 70s and 80s?) By the time of PRR's bankruptcy, New York City's government was on the precipice of its own fiscal crisis. Penn Station could have continued deteriorating for another forty years, right up through the city's economic resurgence in the late-1990s. Charles McKim's grand design was impractical for other reasons as well. The Times' Huxtable, who wrote that the station's passing "confirms the demise of an age of opulent elegance," also acknowledged that "[f]unctionally, [it] was considerably less noble." She wrote: "The complexity and ambiguity of its train levels and entrances and exits were a constant frustration...a better expression of ancient Rome than of 20th-century America." It's a "hard truth" that “New Yor[...]