Tilling Middle Ground of Property-Rights Debate

Conservationists and land holders search for a way to protect both piping plovers and ranch owners

THE term wetlands often conjures up an image of the backwater marshes in Florida and the bayous of Louisiana that brim with birds, alligators, and long-stemmed cattails.

But on a mountain peak more than 10,000 feet above sea level in Telluride, Colo., where lichens grow and chipmunks venture, sits another federally designated wetland. Its status prevented developers from crowning the mountain with a gondola tower.

In a debate long dominated by extremes, the Telluride "wetland" is fodder for those who feel that the government's ability to limit development must be curtailed. But environmentalists defend regulations as essential tools for protecting the nation's flora and fauna - from northwestern salmon to piping plovers on the east coast.

NOW, some are seeking a middle ground between the two. They are plotting a mid-course that steers slightly to the left by stressing the social responsibilities of property holders while acknowledging that private property rights are a mainstay for freedom and democracy.

A new equilibrium in the longstanding tension between the freedoms and duties of a property holder could alter the way Americans handle public and private land nationwide.

Some seekers of the middle ground gathered last week at the University of Wisconsin in Madison for a conference entitled, "Who Owns America? Land and Resource Tenure Issues in a Changing Environment."

As the conference ended, the academics, government land managers, labor organizers, moderate environmentalists, Christian theologians, and members of Native American tribal councils seemed united by a desire to wind down the bitter battle over the control of land. They looked toward a new public consensus on how to reconcile individual property rights with the concerns of society.

The conference came as Congress and more than 30 states consider laws that would require taxpayers to compensate a property holder for government actions that devalue land.

These laws, already enacted in various forms in 13 states, widen the scope of the Fifth Amendment guarantee of compensation for land "taken" by the public. Critics claim the bills are aimed primarily at making environmental laws too expensive and time consuming to enforce.

The House bill, passed in March, would establish compensation stemming from enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, wetlands protections, and the Food Security Act.

The Senate bill, on which debate begins this week, goes much further, deeming any devaluation of property from any government statute a "taking." President Clinton has said he would veto such a measure.

The "takings" legislation, supported by property owners, land developers, and other business interests, has intensified the strife between environmentalists and the "Wise Use" movement, which seeks to defend property owners against what it considers intrusive government regulations.

"We will see tremendous tension and more conflict around those respective views before we see any resolution," says Harvey Jacobs, a professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Wisconsin.

"Eventually, though, we will see the pendulum swing toward the middle and the understanding that there is an appropriate role for government in helping us to protect our notions of private property rights," says Mr. Jacobs, a conference organizer.

"That inevitably means, however, that we all must give a little," he adds.

THERE were signs at the conference of a rising constituency for a middle ground. The dozens of meetings on several aspects of land tenure brought together Native Americans with government land managers, and moderate environmentalists with union organizers and Catholic theologians.

It is unclear, however, exactly what new consensus will emerge. Moreover, the search for a new compact is driven at least to a degree by political expedience.

For example, unions fear "takings" laws could undermine a slew of federal regulations - including those that promote the health and safety of workers, says John Sheehan, legislative director for the United Steelworkers of America.

"Management will want to try to play environmental blackmail and say that we lose jobs because of environmental regulations," Mr. Sheehan said. "But we know that when you take down the Clean Air Act you weaken ... all the other regulations in the interests of labor," he says.

But besides political expediency, principle also galvanized the disparate groups and inspired the effort to find new common ground.

At several sessions, conference-goers expressed exasperation at the lack of balance and thoughtful dialogue on the issue.

Several of the participants extolled the views of Thomas Jefferson. He "would not have tolerated the exhortations of 'sky is falling' environmental extremists. Neither would he have stomached the rhetoric of free enterprise fanatics who claim 'the government is taking the bread from your children's mouths,' " says Donald Last, professor of resource management at the University of Wisconsin in Stevens Point.

Mr. Last and others noted that Jefferson believed citizens can only fully exercise their property rights when they fulfill their duty to good citizenship and sound stewardship of the earth.

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