The threatened land

From small farm to remote plantation, from city lot to industrial site, the development of land has been a driving force for humanity's economic progress. The challenge of today is to preserve that driving force from abuses which threaten the availability of useful land for future generations as the world population grows. A fundamental need is the spread of the long-discussed "land ethic," which sees the land, whether privately or publicly owned, as a planetary resource to be treated with utmost wisdom and responsibility.

In the United States the matter comes to the fore in controversy over the attitudes of incoming cabinet officials concerned with land use -- James Watt as secretary of the interior and John Block as secretary of agriculture. But the challenge extends to all countries and the international organizations that serve them.

To take only the element of private ownership itself, a long-range land ethic might go so far as to ask the Soviet Union to make more responsible use of its share of the world's beleaguered cropland by increasing the allocation away from wasteful collective farms to more efficient individual farmers. The issue of land reform in the sense of linking its ownership to its use arises in many places in the third world, conspicuously in currently troubled El Salvador. In several countries, a land ethic for the good of humankind would challenge the diversion of land to the purposes of the illegal drug trade.

In a very broad sense, individuals everywhere could do their part by participating in the land ethic. This does not mean simply refraining from destroying or misusing the private or public lands they encounter, as they presumably would refrain in the case of manmade property. It means more efficient use of energy, for example, since every extra demand for fuel makes extra demands on the land, whether for drilling, mining, or manufacturing synthetics. It means nonwasteful use of food, too, and some realization of how certain foods, such as meat, may require more land than others for their production. One of the ironies of United States food aid has been to cause changes in eating habits in other countries requiring the use of more land to satisfy them.

Proper energy, food, or any other legitimate needs should be increasingly met for all the world's people. But the cost in terms of land must be recognized, and though exercised to ensure that the land is used effectively with an eye to the future as well as the present. Some regions, for example, cannot stand many more episodes of high fuel costs leading villagers to denude lands for firewood and helping to turn them into deserts.

As it is, even though the world's acreage under cultivation is projected to continue to increase, it is projected to continue to decline per personm -- by a third between 1975 and 2000, for example. Such declines can be offset to some extent by increasing the yield per acre. Yet in such cereal producing countries as the US, France, and China, the past decade has seen the postwar rise in yield checked at least temporarily. And questions arise as to how far yields can be increased without exhaustion of the land -- or how far food prices would have to rise to encourage cultivation of the less fertile soils where production is not profitable now.

In addition to using land responsibly for continued food and energy production, a land ethic calls for thoughtful management of wilderness lands as an essential part of preserving the natural creatures and environment with which humankind shares the planet.

It so happens that such issues are coming to sharp focus in America. Concerns have been expressed about Mr. Watt and Mr. Block. We prefer to see how these men conduct their offices before coming to conclusions about them. It will be to the interest of both of them and the constituencies of their departments to foster the most enlightened land use. Disagreements might come, of course, on how to define this, so that efficient development now and preservation for the future can go hand in hand.

Here Mr. Reagan as President could play a helpful overall role by considering all elements that go into an effective land policy. The country has been losing an estimated three million acres of farmland a year to shopping centers and other aspects of urban sprawl; a similar amount has been disappearing through erosion. In addition, farmland has begun inviting developers and remote investors able to pay much higher prices than most farmers. Capital gains and inheritance tax policies have been cited as encouraging such trends. Perhaps Mr. Reagan's boldly advertised tax initiatives could find ways to make tax policies serve the land better for future generations as well as the present. And he might see wider application for such local efforts to keep land under cultivation as authorities' paying farmers for "development rights" -- the difference between what the land would bring for agricultural purposes and as a developmental parcel.

In earlier days Mr. Reagan allied himself with the so-called sagebrush rebellion of Westerners seeking to have millions of acres of federal lands turned over to the states. He may reconsider this from the vantage point of Washington. Any such a transference should not be made without safeguards against such misuse as overgrazing. Similarly, the line must be held on restoring the land after such uses as strip-mining.

Matters of philosophy are involved here. In theory the owners and/or users of lands would have as much interest as the government in using and preserving them wisely. Indeed, without some such interest, even the best regulations can be undercut. Yet the reckless exploitation of lands in the past and the uncoordinated development of some of them now indicate that both in tone and policy the government must throw its influence on the positive side. In this way the US can be a good example for the other nations liv ing on the garden plot of Earth.

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