A speech presented to the American Political Science Association – THE POLITICS OF AGRICULTURAL LAND PRESERVATION | 1976

Roger Blobaum, Agricultural Consultant
1976 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association.
The Palmer House, Chicago, Illinois,
September 2-5, 1976

Land exploitation and abuse, ranging from ravaged virgin forests to plowed prairie lands that set the stage for terrible dust storms in the 1930s, were almost a way of life in the United States during its first 100 years. The supply of land seemed endless and Congress paid little attention to resource use while the county was being settled. One of its first conservation acts was an 1891 law setting land aside for national parks and forests. Ten years later the Reclamation Act estab­lished a pattern for land development in the West.

For resources like timber and grasslands, funds eventually were provided to re­pair some of the damage. National forests were put under sustained yield manage­ment, for example, and millions of acres of wind-eroded land were protected with shelterbelts and permanent cover. Agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the Soil Conservation Service were set up to try to prevent resource mistakes from being repeated.

The first national commitment to agricultural land conservation came when soil whipped up by dust storms in the 1930s began sifting through the windows of Con­gressional offices in Washington. But that action, which focused on soil and water conservation, was dictated as much by economic and political considerations as by an enduring commitment to protect and conserve land. Most Americans at that time regarded land as an expendable commodity and that attitude still influences nation­al policy.

It wasn’t until the 1960s, when urban land problems began spilling over into agricultural areas as suburban sprawl and landfills and freeways, that public in­terest in this problem was revived. The unprecedented drawdown of world food stocks to a 27-day supply gave an international dimension to the question of how much good land is left.

The Senate Interior Committee had estimated two years earlier that urban de­velopment would consume an area greater than the state of New Jersey every 10 years and that land equal to the total areas of New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island would be lost between now and the end of this century.[i] Net loss of agricultural land, which includes substantial prime land acreage and is increas­ing each year, was estimated at 1.4 million acres a year in 1974.[ii] Erosion and salinity are reducing the productivity of a substantial portion of what is 1eft. The nation’s ability to produce increasing amounts of food for a growing population, both here and abroad, clearly is being diminished.

Although these documented losses have been widely discussed, little progress has been made by government at any level to preserve agricultural land. The Citi­zens Advisory Committee on Environmental Quality, an advisory group that reports to the President, concluded that action taken so far to control agricultural land losses falls far short of the need.[iii] “Zoning, subdivision regulations, and other local controls clearly are inadequate to withstand the growing pressures of urban­ization,” a study report published by the Committee in 1974 stated.  “Interim controls, such as moratoria on development, have only a temporary impact, and preferential tax treatment provisions adopted by many states are weak holding actions at best.”

This paper attempts to show that government at the federal level, particularly Congress, is hamstrung by outdated procedures that keep it from doing what is necessary to protect the public interest in land and other resources vital to national survival. The discussion concentrates on preservation of good agricul­tural land, a finite resource the nation cannot afford to lose.

Probably the most important obstacle is the way Congress has become compart­mentalized in handling issues under an outmoded committee system. A review of the statements of jurisdiction and subcommittee titles shows 11 committees in the House, 11 in the Senate, and on joint committee have continuing responsibilities in issues relating to land use policies and practice.[iv] The Interior Committees and the Public Works Committees in both houses have principal responsibility in this field. Matters related to the use of land for agricultural purposes are usu­ally referred to the Agriculture Committees and this is always true if they refer to soil conservation. Federal irrigation and reclamation issues fall under the jurisdiction of the Interior Committees, however, and flood control matters are referred to the Public Works Committees.

Although cropland loss is a food production problem, the only comprehensive proposals to preserve it have ended up in the Interior Committees. These land use bills would assign the Interior Department a growing role in agricultural land preservation, even though food production issues normally are an Agriculture De­partment concern and Interior’s mission deals primarily with matters like wilder­ness areas and coal leases on the one-third of the nation’s land that is federally owned.

Land use legislation, which has bogged down in the House after clearing the Senate twice by wide margins, would assist the states in inventorying land re­sources, retaining professional staffs, developing land use goals and objectives, and implementing critical areas protection programs. Although agricultural land preservation was not listed as a pressing issue in 1970 when land use legislation was first introduced in Congress, it is a priority objective now in several states where commercial agriculture is disappearing along with the cropland.

In addition to trying to get a land use law enacted to encourage states to pro­tect agricultural land, the Interior Committees have attempted to control land losses caused by strip mining. Nearly all land stripped for coal in Wyoming and Montana, for example, is used for farming or ranching and the outlook for return­ing this land to its original productive use is slim at best. Strip mine controls passed the House and Senate twice but fell short of the two-thirds margin needed to overturn two Presidential vetoes.

In attempting to control strip mine damage to the livestock economy in the West as well as in trying to stimulate state action to save agricultural land, the In­terior Committees have been handling an increasing amount of legislation that im­pacts food production concerns of the Agriculture Department. The Agriculture Committees, and the organizations that focus their lobbying activities there, are no more enthusiastic about this change than the Armed Services Committees would be if the Interior Committees were starting to design the nation’s weapons systems.

Important tax changes impacting agricultural land, meanwhile, are being shaped by the House Ways & Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee. Again the Agriculture Committees have little input into changes that would influence the structure of agriculture, ownership and control of agricultural land, and its loss to urbanization and other development. One proposed tax change, for example, in­volves larger estate tax exemptions to make it unnecessary to sell off portions of family farm units at an owner’s death to satisfy federal tax obligations. When land close to metropolitan areas is appraised for estate tax purposes, the value represented by development potential often results in such a high tax that the heirs are forced to sell rather than maintain the farm as an agricultural produc­tion unit. This has had the result of accelerating conversion of agricultural land to housing subdivisions and other urban-related uses.

Similar problems have developed in housing and transportation, with the Bank­ing Committees and the Commerce Committees making an increasing number of deci­sions that impact on agricultural land. A strong national commitment to single family housing or easy credit for second home development, for example, are major stimulants to agricultural land conversion. So are highway programs that provide funding for limited-access highways that encircle cities, thus encouraging another ring of development, or that take wide rights-of-way out of operating farms. The result, of course, is committees working at cross purposes. Some stimulate con­sumption of agricultural land while others try to preserve it.  Inconsistent poli­cy development and conflicting Congressional demands on the Executive Branch are the results.

Another political problem is the federal government’s reluctance to intervene in land use decision making at the state and local levels.  Involvement thus far has been mainly in resource use planning, with federal funds used as a planning stimulant. The government gets its leverage, particularly in influencing areas like pollution control and economic growth, by making program funding contingent on planning that includes land use elements. Agricultural land, for the most part, has not yet been given a high priority by local governmental units or multi-county planning organizations.

There is precedent for federal involvement in agricultural land use policy at the local level, however, particularly through Agriculture Department programs. Cropland adjustment programs, including those like Greenspan that helped fund ag­ricultural land conversion to non-agricultural uses, showed the department could act aggressively to reduce the agricultural land supply. The Agriculture Depart­ment should shift gears now and use similar techniques to preserve the cropland that is left.  It also should use its technical capability to identify and eval­uate the nation’s agricultural land resources and carefully document land abuse and depletion.

Agricultural land preservation, much like the attempts to clean up the nation’s air and water, has been an issue without an organized hard core of support. Al­though such environmental groups as Friends of the Earth and the Environmental Policy Center are pushing agricultural land preservation, it still has little vis­ibility as a national issue.  Efforts to push it have run up against some of the nation’s old line lobby groups that have a strong financial base, obtain political influence by participating in the elections process, and convert both into clout at state and federal levels.  Included are groups representing subdivision devel­opers, energy companies, second home promoters, the construction industry, and others that promote projects that involve government financing or funding and con­sume agricultural land. An example is the strip mining lobby, strengthened by the Ford Administration’s aggressive coal development policy and described here by Harry Caudill, the Kentucky lawyer who has written widely about strip mining in Appalachian:[v]

“The pressure to keep it going are too vast, when you link the power of the rails, and the barge lines, and the mining companies, and the great land­owning companies, and the steel companies that burn it, and the utilities that burn it, and the rural electric co-ops that burn it, and the great foreign corporations that are loaded with billions of dollars and who want to buy it. They could buy every vote in the country if needed.”

Confronting these powerful interests on the strip mining issue are church and environmental organizations as well as new public interest groups such as the Illi­nois South Project at Carterville, 111.; Save Our Cumberland Mountains at Lake City, Tenn.; Northern Plains Resource Council at Billings, Mont., and the Powder River Basin Resource Council at Sheridan, Wyo. The main purpose of these small, but vocal groups is to engage in research and educational activities that help farmers, ranchers, and others become politically effective and stir public in­terest in their cause.

Although lacking hard-core support, especially in the beginning, clean air and water issues have had sustained Congressional attention since the late 1800s. The Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 made loans available for treatment plant construction and the Water Quality Act of 1965 broadened assistance by making grants available for wastewater treatment. The National Environmental Protection Act followed, along with creation of the Environmental Protection Agency as a pollution-fighting agency. But the nation no longer has the luxury of 25 to 30 years to work out comparable legislation to preserve its agricultural land, partly because too much will be lost while action is taken and partly because land devel­opment is almost always an irrevocable decision. Unlike polluted water and fouled air, agricultural land that has houses built on it, or is paved over by an inter­state highway, or is flooded behind a Corps of Engineers dam, cannot be effective­ly restored and returned to production.

Along with the lack of hard-core public support and a Congressional committee with clear jurisdiction to deal with it in a comprehensive way, the agricultural land issue also lacks Executive Branch advocacy and leadership. The need for land use leadership was stressed by James Ridenour of the Council of State Governments in a paper prepared for a Seminar on Retention of Prime Lands sponsored in 1975 by the USDA Committee on Land Use.[vi] “State and local governments are not the agri­cultural policymaking bodies in this country,” he wrote. “If we are to set a national objective such as the preservation of prime productive lands, the leader­ship for such an effort must come from the national government.” He suggested that Agriculture Department policymakers should begin the process by communicating directly with organizations that represent state and local government. “I am not suggesting that we need extensive plans and programs from the federal government to preserve agricultural lands,” he added. “We need vocal, visible, and convinc­ing leadership with commitments to the concept.”

One specific improvement needed in Congress to deal with issues of land and other resources, short of total reorganization of its committee system, is estab­lishment of a Joint Committee on Natural Resources. This broad policy approach has been adopted several times in the past, most notably in 1946 in creating the Joint Economic Committee and the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, and several joint committee efforts have endured to become important Congressional institutions.

Arguments for joint committees with broad non-legislative responsibilities are well known. Holbert N. Carroll, in “The House of Representatives and Foreign Af­fairs,”[vii] argues that joint committees “act as a funnel” to draw in the specialized thinking occurring in the standing committees, serves to fuse this thinking into a more integrated view of policies, and maximizes the possibility that the results will be dispersed among the standing committees as a guide to their specialized deliberations. “The value of joint committee cooperation is not to be sought in specific legislation credited to a joint group or in spectacular actions and pub­licity,” he wrote.  “Their less tangible virtues include acquisition of information by committee members, integrated committee and staff studies of broad policy areas, an exchange of views, and, hopefully, better understanding between the Executive Branch and Congress, and changes in the attitudes of men.”

Probably the most successful in terms of consistent results is the Joint Econ­omic Committee, a non-legislative committee that begins each year by assessing the President’s Economic Report to Congress, which is prepared by the Council of Econ­omic Advisers. This assessment includes staff studies and public hearings. The same approach is needed with a Joint Committee on Natural Resources, giving it the responsibility of assessing the annual report of the Council on Environmental Quality, which is forwarded to Congress annually by the President. This report comes closest to a comprehensive assessment of the status of the nation’s natural resources of any document published by a single department or agency. Another document that could serve as a focus for hearings and other joint committee activ­ity is the annual report of the Water Resources Council, which draws its membership from federal departments and agencies and concentrates on studies of the adequacy of water supplies for each region of the country.

The next best improvement would be establishing select committees on natural resources in both houses, similar to those now handling aging problems, nutrition and human needs, and small business. Although this would do little to coordinate agricultural land preservation efforts between the two houses of Congress, it would make it possible for each house to consider resource issues on a continuing and coordinated basis.

Lack of coordination of resources policy, particularly in regard to land, is a serious problem as well in the Executive Branch and many of its departments and agencies. The federal budget documents show 23 federal departments and agencies have more than 100 programs relating to land use policy and planning. About one-fifth are administered by the Department of Agriculture which, influenced by many frustrating years of keeping up to 68 million acres of cropland out of production, has continuing split personality problems with the agricultural land preservation issue. One of its agencies, the Economic Research Service, has concluded that the nation has enough land and water to meet its food and fiber requirements into the foreseeable future while another, the Soil Conservation Service, has launched a campaign to identify and preserve prime agricultural land.

The agency coordination problem at the federal level was addressed last summer by more than 60 national experts at USDA’s Seminar on Retention of Prime Lands. “A prevailing theme throughout the discussion of prime agricultural land is the need to recognize the complex interrelationships between such issues as energy, environment, water, and population as well as the interrelationship between land uses at national, regional, state and local levels.” a report prepared by seminar participants stated.[viii] “In order for the federal government to be consistent in programs and research related to land use it is important to implement a means of insuring interaction between the federal agencies whose programs have major land use implications.”

The report called on the Department of Agriculture to take leadership in formu­lating and supporting a legislative proposal to establish Land Resources Council, which would have wide representation from federal agencies and focus on development of consistent and coordinated land resource related programs. The Water Resources Council was repeatedly mentioned as a model for this kind of inter-agency coordi­nation.[ix]  It also was pointed out that programs of federal agencies frequently con­tribute to cropland losses and that nothing at present requires them to consider the impact on food production in highway, airport, power plant, or other siting.

In conclusion, it is clear that agricultural land losses are substantial, that agricultural land preservation is becoming a priority issue, and that little progress has been made by government at any level to preserve productive cropland. It is suggested that the main obstacles to Congressional action are the way both houses are compartmentalized under an outmoded committee system and the way Con­gressional committees often work at cross purposes on issues like agricultural land preservation. It also is suggested that there is ample precedent for federal involvement in cropland decisions at the local level and that agricultural land preservation is an issue with neither hard-core public support nor Executive Branch advocacy and leadership. Finally, it is recommended that the minimum improvement needed in dealing with this important issue include establishing a Joint Committee on Natural Resources to focus attention on this issue in Congress and a Land Re­sources Council to coordinate land-related activities of the Executive Branch.

[i] “National Land Use Policy.” Background papers on past and pending legislation Senate Interior Committee. April, 1972.

[ii] “National Land Use Policy.” Proceedings of a special conference sponsored by the Soil Conservation Society of America.  Ankeny, Iowa.  1973.

[iii] Blobaum, Roger.  “The Loss of Agricultural Land.” A study report to the Citi­zens Advisory Committee on Environmental Quality, Washington, D.C. 20006. 1974

[iv] “National Land Use Policy,” Senate Interior Committee, op., cit.

[v] McCarthy Colman.  “People Don’t Care About Land.” Des Moines Sunday Register. July 18, 1976.

[vi] “Perspectives on Prime Lands.” Background papers for a seminar on retention of prime lands sponsored by the USDA Committee on Land Use. U.S. Department of Agriculture.  1975.

[vii] Carroll, Holbert N.  “The House of Representatives and Foreign Affairs.” University of Pittsburgh Press.  Pittsburgh.  1958.

[viii] Recommendations on Prime Lands.” Recommendations of the seminar on prime lands sponsored by the USDA Committee on Land Use  U.S. Department of Agri­culture.  1975.

[ix] The Water Resources Council was established by the Water Resources Planning Act of 1965.  The Council assesses national and regional water requirements, coordinates the planning activities and participation of federal agencies in regional water development, encourages the establishment of river basin com­missions, and makes grants to states for the development of water and land-related resources plans.

Presentation by Roger Blobaum on The Politics of Agricultural Land Preservation to the 1976 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association. The Palmer House, Chicago, Illinois, September 2-5, 1976

*Roger Blobaum, a former staff member in both houses of Congress, is an agricultural consultant specializing in energy and land use policy.