from the Topeka Capital-Journal
Truth Not Told
Letter to the Editor
by Bill Myers, Topeka
Date: somewhere in mid-April, 1996

Rep. Sam Brownback's recent letter, wherein he proposed to clarify his reasons for co-sponsoring legislation (HR2644) to sell public reservoirs in northwest Kansas to private irrigators at bargain basement prices, was woefully vague and addled with half-truths.

To wit: Four times Rep. Brownback characterizes the federal irrigation projects as "troubled" or having "problems" without ever identifying what even one of these troubles or problems might be, though he implies that the Bureau of Reclamation is somehow uncooperative or adversarial.

While one might begin to understand Rep. Brownback's position if he were able to articulate an example of these alleged difficulties, we are instead left with the impression that he is either uninformed or evasive -- neither condition being desirable for one's elected representative.

Rep. Brownback then has the audacity to suggest that the sale prices proposed in the bill were intended merely to "force negotiations with the bureau," and further, incredibly, seeks to assure us that "the properties would never have been sold at that price." Then why were specific prices included in the language of the bill?

Earlier in his letter, Rep. Brownback cites Section 5 of the bill as an assurance that "parks would remain as parks" and "recreation uses would remain as they are." If other terms of the bill were as negotiable as Rep. Brownback purports the sale prices to be, then it appears Section 5's professed assurances are equally meaningless.

Had Rep. Brownback fully disclosed the intent of Section 5, he would have mentioned that it includes a provision granting the project beneficiary (i.e. the irrigation district) the power to redirect the use of the project, if "the public purpose for which the facilities were constructed is better served." Pardon me? The irrigation district -- a private interest -- will determine how best to serve the public's interest. Please!

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Rep. Brownback's response is his "thought" that the sale price ought to "reflect the substantial investment made by the parties involved" -- and then proceeds to offer the Kansas Bostwick Irrigation District's $7 million investment as an example. What he fails to offer is any explanation of the $7 million figure. Where did he get it? How has the $7 million been invested? And in what? And over what term of years?

One might ask why Rep. Brownback doesn't cite the amount of return the KBID has already received, or is projected to receive, for its purported investment. You can bet they haven't dropped $7 million on a hope and a prayer. Perhaps Rep. brownback has reasons for not sharing that side of the story. Or, perhaps he simply doesn't know. Again, neither condition becomes his office. A prudent citizen might ask about the investments of Kansas taxpayers, public users and all manner of outdoor enthusiasts who support these areas with taxes, licenses and fees. Does their interest have no bearing?

Finally, while Rep. Brownback's belief that "Kansas and Kansans can manage the irrigation projects better than the federal government" might have merit, the reservoirs in question involve far more than irrigation and flood control. These reservoirs and the adjoining lands represent a diminishing public resource -- our public lands and waterways. For a state that so prides itself on its rural heritage and connection to the land, the state's citizens have precious few areas where they can enjoy the beauty and wonder of natural settings, particularly in the northwest region of the state.

The trouble with transferring (i.e. selling) public lands to private interests is that the public loses an irretrievable asset whose value is intrinsic rather than assessable. Anyone who has enjoyed experiences on our public lands -- hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, or simply being -- knows that the very existence and accessibility of such places is of inestimable value. Most of us are not privileged by birth or blessed through hard work and commensurate financial accumulation, to have the means to acquire our own parcel of land where we are free to enjoy the earth's bounty. Our public lands afford us this opportunity.

The responsibility of land stewardship is not the sole province of landowners and those who earn their livelihoods from the land. It is a responsibility that all citizens share. Our public lands allow expressions of our individual regard for the Earth's natural wonders, uniting us on ground that is truly common. Surely, such ground is not in excess.

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