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Grandpa lost his farm to the Tennessee Valley Authority and the condemned land was sold as riverfront lots.
© 1998 By J. Zane Walley

Alabama farmers were dirt poor in the late 1920s, but my grandpa, Wad Walley, had a few acres of rich bottomland and scrub mountainside alongside the mighty Tennessee River. With a couple of old mules and a brood of hardworking sons he managed to scratch out a fair living by raising corn, sugar cane and shipping a few cows up the river to auction at Chattanooga, Tenn., by stern-wheeler riverboat. Nothing fancy, just enough to keep the family fed and buy everyone a set of clothes and a pair of brogans each year.
   They were getting by, that is, until agents from the federal Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) knocked on the door and told Grandpa that his land had been condemned because of the new lake they were building. The TVA agents promised Wad an equal amount of land in trade, and they did give him land; eroded, ruined, rocky, wore-out, with no house, pens, or barns. Grandpa, my father and uncles had to take jobs in a distant town to rebuild the farm and just survive.
   The lake came up after the dam was completed, right up to the edge of the land that had belonged to my family. TVA had plans for our old homestead. Yessir, they did! Auctioned it off as riverfront lots; but of course Wad couldn't afford to bid against the real estate folks and TVA carpetbaggers. That old farmer never forgot, and he never forgave the TVA for stealing his land and selling it at a profit. He never trusted the government again.
   Federal tactics don't seem to have changed much from those days when federal agencies would bully a poor uneducated farmer and his family from their land and livelihood. If anything be true, there is a glut of organizations attempting and succeeding in forcing people from their property. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the Corps of Engineers and U.S. Forest Service along with countless regional, state, county and city agencies seize, or threaten to seize incalculable amounts of private property each year.
   Sixty years later, Texas rancher Margaret Rodgers was in the same predicament as Grandpa Wad when the feds threatened her. "When I got this letter from the Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, they came on me without any warning at all," she remembers. "They said that I could have a stay in jail and a $25,000 to $50,000 fine. I thought it was unreal that the government can come in when we owned this property. I just wondered, what else can the government do to private property owners?" In Margaret's case, federal agents ordered her not to build a fence on her property because it might destroy the habitat of the golden-cheeked warbler, a bird protected by the Endangered Species Act.
   If an endangered species wanders on your property it can confiscate your whole package of property rights. FWS has the authority under the government's power of condemnation which is its fundamental power to take private property for a public purpose without the owner's consent. The government's power of condemnation is also known as the power of "eminent domain" which is one of the harshest proceedings known to law.
   RANGE queried two FWS officials, Jennifer Fowler-Propst of New Mexico and Ron Fowler of the Division of Realty in Washington, D.C., about hostile taking of land by FWS. Both promptly denied that the agency had ever seized land under eminent domain. Fowler wrote, "There is a common misconception about the Fish and Wildlife Service's condemnation policy and history." It is inexplicable they should deny that fact when in truth their own public records show 15,058 acres grabbed under condemnation proceedings. Even more alarming, the Division of Realty files are militaristically classified as "Containing Sensitive Information" suggesting that citizens will never have access to the full truth.
   Disputing the "no condemnation" statements by Fowler-Propst are public announcements by FWS that they might use the power of eminent domain to acquire lands for the Nebraska Niobrara National Scenic River, the acquisition of Bair Island in San Mateo County, Calif., and for restoration activities in Florida's Everglades ecosystem. Recently, unwilling sellers in Poway, Calif., lost land to hostile eminent domain proceedings for the San Dieguito River Park.
   FWS claims it likes to work with "willing sellers" and pay "fair market" value for private properties. Problem is that, commonly, their fair market value is established after an endangered species has been listed on the properties for which they are negotiating, and the value has nose-dived.
   Use restrictions have become the flash point in the property rights controversy. Properties seized under hostile eminent domain are compensable under constitutional takings law. By contrast, for a use restriction to provide compensation, the decrease in land value must be proven severe. Few landowners could meet the constitutional threshold for reparations even if they could afford to fight it. Federal court is expensive, so cost is the powerful disincentive to litigation. This is especially true in the "takings" arena where it is hard to win on the merits. Summed up, if an endangered animal or plant is found on your property, the value falls through the floor. That gives FWS, or one of its constituents like The Nature Conservancy, an opportunity to purchase it at bargain basement prices.
   Federal agencies all have mission statements. The one proudly ballyhooed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is, "The principal agency through which the federal government carries out its responsibilities to conserve, protect, and enhance the nation's fish and wildlife and their habitats for the continuing benefit of people."
   Seems the know-it-all, inside-the-Beltway federal environmentalists have forgotten the "continuing benefit of people" portion of the mission statement. The conclusive line is that FWS is working to take control of thousands of acres of privately held lands and the federal Endangered Species Act is being used as a tool to destroy the Constitution and Bill of Rights. This well-intended act has evolved into a weapon to regulate, intimidate, harass, and punish landowners for having so-called endangered species on their land by "taking" private property for wildlife habitat. While "just compensation" has been touted, the best (read cheapest) way to control lands is to stop all economic uses through abusive governmental regulations and impermissibly violating property rights protected by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.
   Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary magazine, wrote some years ago that "Environmentalism is the American socialism." I reckon old Grandpa Wad Walley could relate to that statement. If he could speak from the grave he would probably protest, "Hell, it ain't nothing new; they're still stealing our land!"



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