Rural Cleansing:The Myth of the Willing Seller

How control and acquisition of private land by government agencies and land trusts leads to the destabilization of rural communities

John Jones is a willing seller. He didn’t want to sell. He held out as long as he could. First, the Park Service came in and purchased the homes, farms and timberlands of neighbors who did want to sell. There will always be some. Then the agency began to search out those families who were in some kind of financial distress, such as from a death, divorce, loss of job or other reason. Many of them were pressured into “conservation easement” restrictions on their land.

Jones watched as his community was checkerboarded by the Park Service and the “land trusts.” He remembered being told when the park was created that he would not be forced out. But now they were targeting local businesses and the county itself. Many small businesses were purchased and put out of business. They purchased the holdings of several large timberland companies. Smaller timber owners began to sell as they saw the logging infrastructure might eventually not be there. The mill eventually had to close because it could not get enough wood. Like a natural ecosystem, the economic ecosystem of a rural community is very fragile. Jones described what happened next:

“As more timberland was purchased, more homes and farms began to disappear. Many residents wanted to hold out, but with fewer jobs in the county, the value of their homes and property began to go down. As they purchased the properties, they lay empty for months or even years because they did not have the funds to clear them out. They became havens for vandals and drug houses.

“The Nature Conservancy and other land trusts began to circle like buzzards. They would buy from financially distressed landowners or convince them to restrict the use of their land with “conservation easements.” Then the land, or control over it, was turned over to the federal government. Time after time this happened, quietly, secretly and silently they helped undercut the community.

“As properties were taken off the tax rolls, the schools and county services began to suffer. Several closed, making longer trips to school necessary for families. The school district didn't have the money for the necessary buses. Roads began to close. As large areas were purchased by the Park Service, the agency put up chains across the roads. Some of these roads had been used for years by neighbors as access points to the river or forests for hunting, fishing, camping, woodcutting or berry picking. Usually we knew another way but over time, use of ‘public’ land was restricted and the access was closed off.

“Churches, clubs and other community services began to close. The library was in trouble. The hours were cut for it and other county services. There had been several markets in town and three gas stations. There is only one of each now, and it looks like the store will close. That means an 80 mile drive to Millersville for groceries. It wasn’t long before other essential services and stores began to disappear.

“When the park was created, they promised tourism. I don’t know where it is. We gave up a lot of good jobs for this park and the tourists don’t come. The few tourism related jobs are part-time and low paid. Several motels and restaurants were built in anticipation of the visitors. All but one restaurant is closed, and it cut its hours back. We have two motels still open but both are struggling.

“We have a very nice ski area but a Park Service trail runs through it. The agency has harassed the owners so often that they’re close to giving up. They can’t get any kind of commitment from the Park Service as to a final trail location, so they can’t invest in modernizing and expanding the ski area. There sure are a lot of people in town who would benefit if the ski area were allowed to meet its potential. We thought the Park Service supported recreation. Now it seems the opposite is true. We heard from people out West that the Park Service and the environmental groups were becoming anti-recreation. It couldn’t be true, we said. It looks like we were wrong. They seem to be against skiing and snowmobiling. It doesn't make sense. All they want is more of our land.

“The county had no choice but to raise our taxes. The tax base for the county was shrinking almost daily. We had one local bank and several bank branches. Now there is only one branch open as part of the market, but it may go away too. The banks have not made many loans in our town for several years now because the future is unstable. They won’t make loans to loggers, equipment suppliers, or small businessmen because of the threat from the Feds. No new houses have been built in some time. The theater closed and the cable television company is considering shutting down. It feels like a ghost town.

“Some of my neighbors are determined to stay and suffer the consequences and severe hardships of living within a now nearly all federal enclave. I love my town. I was born and raised here, went away to college and came back. It looks like even though I stood up to those land acquisition agents, there will soon be nothing left to stand up for. I never thought I’d be a willing seller. But I am now.”

[VLRC Note: We do not know the origin of this ‘fictional’ tale. It has been circulated widely by property rights advocates and it accurately describes the results of elitist collusion between federal agencies, such as the Park Service, elected officials and land trusts. Whether the land acquisition is for “protection of endangered species” or for “historic preservation,” the outcome has been a social, cultural and economic disaster for rural America.]