Federal Land Management Not a Good Deal for Americans

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“By nearly all accounts, our federal lands are in trouble, both in terms of fiscal performance and environmental stewardship.” That was an assertion made earlier this month in a study released by the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC). The study focused on the difference between state-managed public lands and federally managed public lands. The federal government is ill-suited to manage vast amounts of land in the West. Short of private ownership, state and local governments are best suited for the task.

Federal Land Ownership. The federal government is the largest land owner in the United States, owning roughly 640 million acres, about 28 percent of the country. The federal government owns nearly half of the land west of the Rockies, and roughly 81 percent of Nevada alone. However, east of the Rockies, the federal government owns an average of only 5 percent of the land in each state. Such a high level of federal ownership of land in Western states has led to controversy over ownership and management of public lands.

Western states have considered resolutions requesting that the federal government transfer title of much of the public land held within their borders. Utah, for example has passed legislation that “requires the United States to extinguish title to public lands and transfer title to those public lands to the state.” Several other states such as New Mexico, Montana, and Wyoming have passed legislation to study the transfer of certain public lands from federal to state agencies. These transfers generally exclude public land such as national parks, national monuments, and tribal lands.

PERC’s Findings. PERC conducted its study by comparing revenues and expenditures for the management of federal land and state trust land in New Mexico, Arizona, Idaho, and Montana. State trust lands are the most common form of state-owned lands in the West. State trust lands were created by land grants made to the states by the federal government and are used for the benefit of public institutions, like schools. The lands generate revenue through uses ranging from timber and grazing to mineral extraction. The study looked at two federal agencies that manage public land: the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the United States Forest Service (USFS). According to the study,

  • “The federal government loses money managing valuable natural resources on federal lands, while states generate significant financial returns from state trust lands.”
  • “The states examined in this study earn an average of $14.51 for every dollar spent on state trust land management. The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management generate only 73 cents in return for every dollar spent on federal land management.”
  • “On average, states generate more revenue per dollar spent than the federal government on a variety of land management activities, including timber, grazing, minerals, and recreation.” For example, New Mexico receives $12.78 of revenue per dollar spent on administering grazing fees, whereas the USFS and BLM receive $0.10 and $0.14, respectively.
  • “These outcomes are the result of the different statutory, regulatory, and administrative frameworks that govern state and federal lands. States have a fiduciary responsibility to generate revenues from state trust lands, while federal land agencies face overlapping and conflicting regulations and often lack a clear mandate.”

The PERC study calls into question the ability of federal government agencies to manage public lands in the west and supports states’ ability to manage those lands. As The Heritage Foundation’s Nick Loris and Katie Tubb note, “States are already well positioned to help make a transition to better management of these resources.” States are best suited to manage these public lands due to their vested interest in seeing the lands produce revenue and are also held responsible for achieving that objective.