"The control-the-land movement, which is the strongest in the western states, but is moving eastward," is one of two arms of environmental activism that is effectively denying landowners use of their land, he told members of the Southern Crop Production Association at their recent annual meeting.
Cohen, who is senior fellow at the Lexington Institute and Washington editor for Earth Times and Environment News, says the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and other environmental laws "opened the floodgates of litigation," with a number of organizations specializing in filing lawsuits under the guise of preserving species or protecting water/air.
"This has become the most effective land use mechanism on the books today," he says. "Their ultimate aim is to depopulate rural areas as much as possible. By undermining the economic base of rural America, an entire culture is being systematically disenfranchised."
If farmers can't derive economic use of their land because of restrictive laws, Cohen says, "they're forced to sell – and often the land has declined in value because it can't be used. The big land trusts come in and buy the undervalued property from the owners; then, they turn around and sell big chunks of it to the federal government. This takes it off the tax rolls, further undermining rural communities."
With the median age of farmers going steadily upward, the costs and risks of farming skyrocketing, and the pressures of paperwork multiplying, more farmers are opting to quit, Cohen notes. "The barriers to farming are making it more and more difficult for young people to enter the business. As the older farmers leave, succeeding generations are disappearing from rural areas and going where opportunities are greater."
At a recent meeting, he says, "A farmer, 46 years old, told me he was the youngest farmer in the entire county."
Fortunately, Cohen believes, things are beginning to look better in terms of oppressive government regulations, which could eventually see some easing of land use rules and a slowing of land being sucked up by trusts and the government.
As a result of the new administration and Congress, he says, "There are more and more people in government who will listen to us. There is a much more friendly atmosphere in Washington for providing relief from some of these laws. The new chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is a very sharp critic of the misuse of science and regulatory powers, the takeover of land by government and land trusts, and the unreal policies of some agencies – for example, no tree farmers would use the disastrous management practices the Forestry Service uses on public lands."
The new committee chairman when the 108th Congress convenes in January is Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., who says he will "work in a bipartisan fashion to create policies that are based on sound science and proper cost/benefit analyses."
Cohen says he believes Inhofe and his committee "will look hard at these issues. They've indicated they want to hold hearings on the misuse of science by the EPA, many of whose officials have never set foot on a farm in their life and have no understanding of pesticides or the consequences of their regulatory actions."
At the very least, he says, "I believe we're going to see congressional oversight of the EPA – a giant bureaucracy of 17,000 employees, many of whom have a vested interest in protecting the status quo."