THIS LAND IS MY LAND. . . CITIZENS, AGENCIES SQUARE OFF OVER PROPERTY RIGHTS Series: THE CONTRACT AND YOU

Article excerpt

Jim Koeller strides over fragile corn plants and pauses at a dip in the field. Despite fierce spring rains the day before, the patch of earth where he stands is barely moist.

Yet federal officials whose boots had never walked here declared this field and others nearby as wetlands, triggering restrictions on what Koeller and his neighbors in western Illinois can do with their land.

Little did the government realize the resentment it would stir up, turning the rich soils of the Mississippi River bottomlands into ground zero in the fledgling property rights movement.

"These weren't swamps or places where turtles, frogs and ducks live; nothing like it. This was our property; and with a stroke of a pen, it was gone," says Koeller.

Not for long.

Starting in 1987, Koeller led Pike County, Ill., farmers on a crusade against the government's new wetlands program. They were early enlistees in a property rights movement that now is close to changing the fundamental relationship between government and landowners in this country.

To conservationists, the prospect of this change threatens two decades of environmental laws. Every government action to protect the health, safety or welfare of the people could trigger a new cost - compensating disadvantaged property owners.

To Koeller and his neighbors, that would be fine. The problem, to them, was the ease with which the federal government made new rules. The enemy was the Soil Conservation Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency - all of which had a hand in a new government manual for choosing wetlands for federal protection.

With the aid of aerial photography, the government declared over 2,000 acres of Pike County new wetlands. Farmer Jim Gay calls it the "glancing duck theory." Gay says: "If there might be water there and the duck flying overhead might glance down and see it, then the federal government thinks it should be a wetland."

For farmers, the wetland designation meant prohibitions on draining fields, improving them for farming or changing them in any way. The maps were mailed out on April Fool's Day, 1991. To the Illinoisans, it was no joke.

They raised such a ruckus that the government sent a special team to hear their appeals. Koeller and others won the appeals. g

Pike County, Ill., became the American Farm Bureau's emblem for the dangers of a government that tramples on property rights. In July 1991, Koeller, Gay and Pike County Farm Bureau director Blake Roderick raised their concerns at a news conference in Washington. Shortly afterward, then-President George Bush ordered the new wetlands system scrapped.

The Midwestern farmers were not alone. Coastal dwellers complained that wetlands designations slowed development. Mining and timber interests said they were constrained by protection of endangered species. Neighbors to national parks griped that the government "locked up" land around them.

Recently, riding the crest of anti-government sentiment, property rights turned into a full-fledged political force with devotees that range from militia leaders to presidential contenders.

Pro-property rights bills have been filed in every state legislature and passed in a few. In Congress, a property rights proposal passed the U.S. House as part of the "Contract with America," and a similar plan will be taken up by the Senate. Each would require the government to pay landowners compensation if the value of their property is diminished by a government regulation.

Under the House-passed bill, if a rule protecting a wetland or an endangered species forced Jim Koeller to take land out of production or reduced the value of any portion of his land by 25 percent, Koeller would be entitled to an equivalent payment from the government.

The Senate version would raise the payment threshold to one-third but allow compensation for any federal regulation, not just wetlands and endangered species. …