Revisiting America’s Best Idea: The Public Lands Debate

Tom Warwick 

This is another  installment of our on-going “Revisiting America’s Best Idea” series.  You can read the series  introduction here, and the first post of the series here.

“To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.”

-Mission of the US Forest Service

For over three decades the federal government has been at odds with several western state governments over the control of public lands located within state borders. The debate started in 1976 with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which codified the federal government’s de-facto management of over 300 million acres of land. With passage of the act, the federal government was delegated, among other responsibilities, management of  logging activities, water collection and distribution, and wildfire control. The lands have also been opened to the public, providing areas for hiking, hunting, fishing, and other outdoor recreation, free of charge.

For states, the passage of this bill has meant the rather large loss in potential revenue, since they can neither develop the area nor tax the federal government for its use. The issue was the catalyst for the current iteration of this debate, the 2012 Utah State Assembly “Transfer of Public Lands Act.” The Act called on the federal government to turn over more than 30 million acres to the state by the end of 2014. Unsurprisingly, the land is still in federal control, but the defiant legislation has inspired other states to follow suit. Recently, states such as Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Montana have had similar legislation submitted in their own State Assemblies.

During the 2016 election, the battle for control of the federal land in the west made its way onto the national agenda.  Back in June, the Senate passed SA 838, a budgetary amendment that called for the sale of national forests and other public lands.  While the amendment ultimately failed to become law, it was the first major action taken at the federal level to transfer ownership of the parks from the federal government.  The debate was furthered when, in July, the Republicans added a plank to their official national platform calling for “Congress [to] immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states.” President-Elect Trump has also weighed in on the issue, telling a crowd in Las Vegas that federal land transfers is “not a subject I know anything about.”  Despite the growing popularity of this movement, the transfer of public lands to local government is bad policy that would, not only limit public access to this lands, but pose a substantial economic burden.  

Advocates of transferring control most often cite the well-worn “state’s rights” argument for why they need to take over management of the public land.  They claim that federal control interferes with the state’s right to make money in its own territory since they can neither develop the area for their own use and benefit, nor tax the federal government for its use. While this is argument is not without some merit, it’s true the states are losing out on tax revenue, in the long run the transfer would prove to be more of a hindrance then the payout the states seem to think it will be. For one thing, most states are currently making money off of public land, via permits, leases, and other means. For example, a report published by Y2 Consultants on behalf of the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments found that Wyoming currently makes $1.39 billion a year from its 25 million acres of federal land. That money goes directly to the state government, without the state having to pay a cent of the federal government’s $170 million annual budget for managing that land. A similar report, prepared by the University of Utah for the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordination Office, calculates that the state receives $185.2 million annually from federally managed public lands within its borders. $154.2 million a year more than it hopes to make by owning and managing the land itself.  

In addition to the fact that assumption of federal land would end these rather large paydays, the states would have to face another challenge; service costs. Currently the federal government, through agencies such as the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the National Parks Service, foots the bill for the entire land management process – everything from nailing trail markers on trees to environmental regulation enforcement. Providing these services cost billions of dollars each year. In fact, wildfire protection measures alone takes up half of the US Forest Service’s annual 6.5 billion dollar budget. For a state like Wyoming or Oklahoma, which have an annual state budget of $9.3 billion and $6.8 billion respectively, this would mean taking on massive amounts of new spending. In the end, assumption of the land would likely result in states losing millions of dollars of revenue each year and having to pay out billions more in new costs.

After grumbling about states rights, most advocates of transferring control of federal lands like to claim that local governments know better than Washington about how the land should be used. Again, while the moderate Republican in me agrees with this in theory, the facts don’t seem to line up with the story. For one thing, the cost associated with taking control of the land will quickly deny states the ability to make objective decisions over the use of the land.  Faced with the budget-busting obligations mentioned above, state governments would be faced with a choice: raise taxes to raise the revenue necessary to properly manage the land, or sell off the land and jettison the expense entirely. Conventional wisdom and recent state deficits suggest that raising taxes probably isn’t going to happen, especially in a Republican controlled statehouse. This leaves the option of selling the land. While this might sound speculative or unlikely, the selling of public land is something that history tells us western states have had no problems doing. For example when Nevada became a state, it was given 4,000,000 acres of public lands, today only 3,000 of those acres are still held by state trusts. This is a phenomenon that was repeated more recently in Idaho, Colorado, and  Utah. This outcome becomes even more plausible when you consider that companies that stand to profit the most from the land transfer, such as the Koch Brothers and Exxonmobil, are funding most of the lobbying efforts.

At the end of the day, the truth is that when a state owns land, it is only a matter of time before it no longer belongs to the public. Public lands held by states, rather than the federal government, are more likely to  be sold off, developed, exploited, or turned into private real estate. Should states sell off these lands to private individuals or corporations, the public would begin to lose the free access it currently enjoys.  While this might seem like a bunch of granola crunchers complaining about having to pay for a use permit or not being able to access a preferred trail, it’s really is much more. Imagine if the places we enjoy were suddenly sold so that a state government could fix a hole in its budget. We owe it to future generations to preserve and protect the natural beauty that we have ourselves been afforded, and to ensure that the outdoors are not just the playground of those who can afford it. To sacrifice this principle would be sacrilegious.    

You can read the next post in the series here.

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