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.