Why States Will Not Serve the American Public as Well  as Federal Land Managers 

Comb Ridge, UT c/o John Miles

By John C. Miles

John Miles

John Miles

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the American Lands Council, and others argue that the states would better manage the federal lands in the public interest than does the federal government. This contention raises questions about what interests and which publics are served by federal versus state public land management. Most state land today is held in public trust primarily for the economic benefit of the people of the state where it is located. It is not held in trust for the broader American public. Other public benefits such as land health, access for recreation, and protection of common resources such as water quality and quantity are secondary if considered at all.

Interests in the so-called “public land” states in the West that advocate transfer compare the amount of their land held by the federal government with states in the East. They point out that the federal government controls 62% of Alaska, 47% of the land in the 11 mainland Western states, and only 4% of the land in the remaining 38 states. This is unfair, they suggest, because it denies the public land states opportunities, primarily economic, that are available in the eastern “private land” states. Ironically, though, multitudes of people living in the East benefit from public lands in the West in various ways, and many people in the West benefit economically from public land there. Recreation and tourism, for instance, are very large economic drivers in the West. If federal lands were transferred to states, the diverse priorities of federal public land stewardship and the publics served would be reduced or lost.

In 2015, a study titled Divided Lands: State vs. Federal Management in the West was published by the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC).1 The study appears on the web site of the American Lands Council, a strongly pro-transfer group. It compares revenues and expenditures of federal land management in four western states — Montana, Idaho, New Mexico, and Arizona — with revenue and expenditures from state trust lands in those four states. The study concludes that the federal government “loses billions of dollars each year managing valuable resources on federal land”, whereas states “consistently produce generous financial returns while managing similar resources.” The resources considered are timber, grazing, minerals, recreation, and “other” such as agricultural development, commercial development, and land sale.

From Muley Point, UT c/o John Miles

From Muley Point, UT c/o John Miles

The authors, both economists, conclude that from an economic perspective the states could manage transferred lands for greater economic benefit. The states do manage their trust lands, if the statistics presented are correct, for greater economic gain for the beneficiaries (states) than does the federal government. The authors note that “These results are the product of the different statutory, regulatory, and administrative frameworks that govern state and federal lands.” Principal among the differences is the legal requirement that state trust lands, granted to states by the federal government upon statehood, “be managed for the long-term financial benefit of a specific beneficiary,” mostly schools, universities, hospitals, and other public institutions. The trust mandate involves a fiduciary responsibility to maximize financial return to these beneficiaries. The federal multiple-use mandate, on the other hand, the authors note, is “based on legislative rule, budget appropriations, and a public input process.” The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management do not have a mandate to maximize financial return or even to cover the costs of their land management. Indeed, the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have often been criticized, by some economists as well as conservationists, for below-cost timber sales and livestock grazing fees well below market value.  The authors present a strong case that from a strictly economic angle, the states do a better job than the federal government.

They do note that a central question in the transfer debate is “how the lands would be managed under state control.” They admit that “state control alone will not necessarily solve the problems that exist on the federal estate.” If federal lands were to be managed like state trust lands there would be “significant effects on current land management practices and existing public land users, including higher lease rates, increased leasing competition, and modest fees for recreation access.” They also admit they did not address the cost of managing and suppressing wildfires, “which presents a significant financial and environmental challenge on federal lands.” This is certainly understatement – in New Mexico alone, the Forest Service spent $155 million on fire suppression in fiscal year 2011, and $86 million in 2012. Overall wildfire management funding nationally of the Forest Service and Department of the Interior (BLM, NPS, FWS) was $3.5 billion.2 Not factoring this into their analysis seems a rather large oversight and skews their analysis.

Divided Lands is of course only one study, but I’ve cited it because it reveals well how fraught is their answer to the question of whether states could do a better job for the public on public lands than the federal government. If the only metric of “better” is economic return, then perhaps states could, in low fire years, bring a better economic return than federal managers, but what of other land values held and served by the federal estate? The study authors, and land transfer advocates generally, argue that the federal government “loses billions” through its management. When the Forest Service invests more in managing for recreation than it brings in economically, it has not “lost” the dollar difference between expenditure and revenues. As it protects wilderness, safe from timber cutting, allowing free access, maintaining trails and restoring damaged areas, it is investing in rather than losing public value. Such expenditures or restraint of exploitation are a loss only if the sole value of the land and the sole objective of management is to make money, but the Forest Service’s mission is to provide services to the public. In its wilderness management, these services would include the fun of hiking and backpacking, fishing or hunting on the national forest, and the restorative, recreational, and inspirational value of a wilderness experience.

Strictly economic analysis like that in Divided Lands reveals many ironies.

States earn more for their timber resources because they do not have requirements for planning, environmental impact assessment, and public input like those imposed on the Forest Service. They earn more from grazing because they charge higher grazing fees, and from minerals because they charge significantly higher royalty rates than the federal government is allowed to charge. They bring in more revenue because interest group lobbies like ranchers, timber companies, and mining and oil and gas interests, work successfully to keep federal rates low. To adhere to their fiduciary responsibility, trust managers must use competitive bidding and other market-based methods to assure they meet their mandate. If states were to manage transfer lands like they do trust lands, these lobbies would not likely say “Great! We are so happy states are in charge. We’ll be glad to pay more.

Butler Wash, UT c/o John Miles

Butler Wash, UT c/o John Miles

In their conclusion, the authors of Divided Lands write, “Federal land management is also, by its nature, political land management. Politics become entangled in many aspects of federal land management and often prevent agencies from evolving in ways that state trust agencies have – by adjusting lease rates, encouraging competitive bidding, or allowing conservation leasing.” State trust land management is less political, they argue, because its mission is more clear and narrow. True enough, but such a narrow mandate for the far larger federal estate, if in state hands, is not desirable and not likely to be free of politics. People like their recreation and conservation of scenery and wildlife and would fight politically for them.

Federal lands currently being managed under a multiple use mandate are very unlikely if transferred to continue to be managed for multiple use, at least not for the range of uses currently embraced by federal land management.  They could be sold to private interests to generate much-needed revenue. States are required to balance their budgets. If shortfalls occur because of increased expenses incurred in managing their vastly increased lands, Republican governors and legislators in the public lands states, adhering to their smaller government ideology, would look for ways to gain revenue. Perhaps they would decide to make up their shortfall by increasing development of their state lands, or even selling some of that land. If they did, both the state and national publics would be the losers in the long run. Politics will surely play a large role in the future of public lands whether state or federal, but history suggests that retaining public lands for a broad range of public goods is more likely under federal ownership than under states.

Another argument transfer advocates make is that the Forest Service and BLM are doing a poor job managing the environment in their domains and states can do better on this front. Few will dispute that there are many problems with federal land management. Range is overgrazed, riparian areas are in disrepair, wildlife habitat loss threatens many species, and erosion is a serious problem – the list of problems is long. But there is no evidence that states can do better..

While there is undoubtedly redundancy in regulation governing federal land use and management, regulations are usually the consequence of an attempt to address a problem. Regulation should be streamlined. Effective environment management must be based on science, monitoring, and adaptive management, all of which are expensive and time consuming. It seems unlikely states will invest more in environmental management and restoration than the federal government has over the past century. Some transfer advocates hold up epidemic pine and spruce beetle infestations as examples of federal land management failure. They suggest state managers could do a better job coping with this very large problem that many experts attribute to climate change. Perhaps they would harvest the trees to make them unavailable to beetles. Same with wildfire – cut the trees and they would not burn.  Unfortunately beetles and wildfire do not recognize state boundaries, and “controlling” such forces state by state would be a mind-boggling challenge.

One reason federal agencies have been unable to manage the environment in their care as well as they might is chronic underfunding. Their budgets are subject to the ebb and flow of the economy and politics and even the vagaries of nature. Consider, for instance, how the Forest Service budget has been affected by wildfire in recent years. In 1995, the portion of the Forest Service appropriation devoted to wildfire management was 16%. In 2016, it was 52% and all non-fire expenditure was reduced. Between 1998 and 2015, national forest management staffing – those who did everything from timber management to trail maintenance fell almost 40%. This included a 24% cut in spending for vegetation and watershed management, a 64% cut in land management planning, a 68% cut in spending on facilities maintenance, and a 95% cut in addressing the $5.5 billion maintenance backlog.3 In their 2016 paper on alternatives to transfer of public land, John Ruple and Robert Keiter note that “With limited staffing and resources, public land managers have little time to process permit applications or engage stakeholders, reinforcing the misperception that agency personnel are unable or unwilling to work with state and local governments.”4 Conservative political strategy aimed at reducing government has been to “starve the beast,” and that has been part of the agency’s funding crisis. Reduce appropriations so that agencies cannot do what they are mandated to do, then attack them for not doing it.

Valley of the Gods, UT c/o John Miles

Valley of the Gods, UT c/o John Miles

While federal multiple use land management agencies are not doing all that they should, there is no evidence that transfer of the federal estate to the states will improve the situation. There is evidence that transfer would change the priorities, raising economic gain as the primary and often perhaps the only goal of management, above any others that might involve long-term conservation of natural and cultural resources, recreation, or any non-economic values. That economic gain might come from development or even from sale. The core argument of advocates for transfer is that more state and local control would provide more jobs and economic opportunities for communities. More jobs depend on more development, and more development means sacrifice of other land values. Federal agencies have struggled to cater to a broad range of constituencies, a set of national values ranging from economic development to preservation of wilderness and endangered species. By their nature, they live in a world of contentious national, regional, and local politics. Shifting the management to the states will not eliminate the politics or solve the problems but may well generate a set of new problems that are the consequence of less regulation, less environmental assessment, and less public input.

Measures to counter the transfer idea have been suggested. First, educate the public about their public land assets and work to counter the distrust of the federal government, especially in the West. Define and publicize good federal land stewardship, and encourage more of it, rewarding federal land stewards who engage in collaborative planning and problem-solving with public-land-dependent communities. Work for better funding of federal land-management agencies so they have the staff to engage in such collaboration. Organize pro-public land forces, like the outdoor recreation industry, to counter industries like the oil and gas lobby. Call out corporate interests in this fight like the Koch brothers with their self-serving agendas. Creative, coordinated, and sustained push-back against the economic, political, and social forces threatening the public estate is a large but necessary order.

Multiple use, from the days of Gifford Pinchot, has meant resource extraction, especially timber harvest. The Bureau of Land Management, once the General Land Office overseeing the transfer of public land to the private sector, then the National Grazing Service catering to the demand of public land grazing interests, has a very poor record of land conservation. None of the federal agencies, with the possible exception of the National Park Service, have protected public wildlands as they might. Still, federal ownership of public lands is generally better for land health, conservation, and quiet recreation than is state or private ownership.

1 Holly Fretwell and Shawn Regan, Divided Lands: State vs. Federal Management in the West. Bozeman, MT: Property and Environment Research Center, 2015.
2 K. Bracemort, “Wildfire Management: Federal Funding and Related Statistics.” Congressional Research Service, 2013, R43077. http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43077.pdf.
3 U.S. Forest Service, Department of Agriculture, The Rising Cost of Fire Operations: Effects on the Forest Service’s Non-Fire Work 6 (Aug. 4, 2015), httpp://www.fs.us/sites/default/files2015-Fire-Budget-Report.pdf. It isn’t.
4 John C. Ruple & Robert B. Keiter, Alternatives to the Transfer of Public Lands Act. Stegner Center White Paper No. 2016-01. (March 1, 2016), University of Utah, Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment, 4.

About the author


The Rewilding Institute (TRI) mission is to explore and share tactics and strategies to advance continental-scale conservation and restoration in North America and beyond. We focus on the need for large carnivores and protected wildways for their movement; and we offer a bold, scientifically credible, practically achievable, and hopeful vision for the future of wild Nature and human civilization on planet Earth.

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