The president wants to build a wall on the southern border and the government is currently shut down because of it. Or is this shutdown a big, expensive and unproductive sham? The fact is, as publically reported by several newspapers, that most of the land, about 60 percent, on which a wall would be built is not currently in federal ownership. The part that is owned by the feds is Big Bend National Park in Texas, about the last place anyone would want to see a wall, and national forests and monuments. The rest is mostly privately owned.
I know this because I retired as the director of lands for the Southern Region of the Forest Service. My job was to manage a talented and dedicated staff of realty professionals who acquired land for the federal government. I oversaw the acquisition of millions of dollars of private land that eventually became parts of national forests. I can tell you that it is a slow and labor-intensive process It took years, not months, to purchase significant tracts
So does it make sense for the president to demand funding for a wall when the land that it would be built on isn’t in federal ownership? Couldn’t the president use his enormous powers to expedite the process?
The problem is that the constitution gets in the way. The federal government can’t take something of value, land for example, without compensation. Oh, there is condemnation. The government has the right to condemn land. But to do so, they have to offer fair market value and just determining that can take months. And a landowner can go to court to contest the offer. Besides, the last I heard, conservatives were no fans of government condemnation of private land for public purposes.
In addition, the law requires environmental studies that take time. These steps were put there to protect landowners and the public. Consider, how would you like it if the feds showed up and tried to take a chunk of your ranch to build this wall? OK, some would consider the tradeoff in keeping them secure from border crossers worth the cost. But don’t you think they’d want to be paid? Of course they would, and so would you. And therein is the rub: It takes time to get them paid fairly.
So why is the president talking about building the wall before he even owns the land? Something here just doesn’t make sense. Let’s not get the cart in front of the horse and let’ do this the right way, if we are indeed going to do it at all, and let’s buy the land before we talk about building a wall on it. Maybe the compromise is that the Democrats offer Trump 5.6 billion tax dollars but only to buy right of way from willing sellers at fair market value and that all right of way be purchased before another appropriation is authorized. That would make sense.