The massive federal land holdings in the western United States continue to irritate many folks living west of the 100th Meridian. According to Holly Fretwell of the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) and Montana State University, nearly half of the western states is owned by the federal government including over 60 percent of Alaska and approximately 80 percent of Nevada.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Forest Service (USFS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Park Service (NPS) are the federal agencies controlling these lands.
With the federal estate comes the Endangered Species Act (ESA), National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), with its lengthy and contentious Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process, and a host of other laws designed to limit development by means of wilderness or monuments designations, the latter by presidential fiat. These statutes effectively restrict economic activities, especially on BLM and USFS lands which, by law, are supposed to be “multiple use” lands allowing for mining, oil and gas development, forestry, ski resorts as well as recreational activities. ESA and NEPA create de facto and de jure obstacles to economic interests that are not applicable to state lands.
This may explain why federal land management is so deficient in terms of cost-effectiveness. In “Divided Lands: State v. Federal Management in the West,” PERC’s Fretwell and Shawn Regan report that state land management agencies, unlike federal agencies, actually are profitable. They compared the USFS and BLM, which control 90 percent of all federal lands in the West, to Montana, Idaho, New Mexico, and Arizona. In 2009-2013, these four states “earned a combined average of $14.51 for every dollar spent managing state trust lands. The federal agencies lost money, generating only 73 cents for every dollar they spent.
Listening to many westerners, as well as their representatives in Congress, there seems to be an assumption that these lands, with the exception of the NPS lands, should be devolved to the states gratis. There are many precedents for the federal government disposing of land to private parties going back to the early years of the Republic as a means of revenue and during and after the Civil War to encourage settlement of the interior.
Niall Ferguson, the Harvard economic historian and host of PBS’s “The Ascent of Money,” believes America’s financial situation is degenerating precipitously. His plan for federal lands and other assets? Sell them! Writing in Newsweek, back in 2011, Ferguson argued: “The U.S. needs to do exactly what it would if it were a severely indebted company: sell off assets to balance its books.” He is talking about privatization of government assets, a red flag for many. Yet, since the 1990s about 75,000 medium-to-large firms have been privatized all around the world along with hundreds of thousands of smaller enterprises.
Ferguson, along with most proponents of either privatization or devolution excludes parks and ecological lands. “No, not Yellowstone or Yosemite,” says the frugal Scot. “Those natural wonders should always belong to the nation. And no, not Alaska, much as many moderate Republicans would love to sell Sarah Palin to the Chinese.”
Ferguson is certainly thinking outside the box in calling for a massive sell-off of federal assets like TVA, Amtrak, and “the extensive hydroelectric empire of the US Army Corps of Engineers.”
“The government owns somewhere between 600 million and 700 million acres of land or about 30 percent of the country’s land surface, much of it in the Western States, where as much as half the land is federally owned,” Ferguson reminds us.
Again, layers of legislative and regulatory mandates have rendered federal agencies like the USFS moribund and without resources to effectively manage their lands. Presently, cities like Denver and San Francisco are paying tens of millions of dollars for treatment of federal forest landscapes to reduce the risk of forest fires that threaten their water reservoirs with sediment runoff. It seems that this agency basically fights forest fires and prepares Environmental Impact Statements for a living. Sadly, Congress won’t let them recover the real value of the lands, i.e., high-end recreation that could be the rising tide that lifts all boats.
PERC’s Shawn Regan further describes the plight of the USFS in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (“The U.S. Department of Land-Hogging”). Both USFS and BLM lose $2 billion each year managing their lands. “For example, the feds are notorious for conducting ‘below-cost’ timber sales, in which they spend more selling the timber than they get in return.”
Regan cites a 2002 USFS report indicating that it is “so busy meeting procedural requirements, such as preparing voluminous plans, studies, and associated documentation, that it has trouble fulfilling its historic mission: to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forest and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.”
“A single Forest Service project can take years to move forward and cost more than $1 million in planning,” writes Shawn Regan.
Discussing these matters in terms of financial cost and returns is the antithesis of what the environmental community values in these lands and agencies. What attracts proponents of privatization or devolution, with or without compensation to the federal treasury, is the very thing that repels environmentalists. In an op-ed in the New York Times (“Our Land, Up for Grabs”), Will Rogers, president of the Trust for Public Lands, a national land conservancy organization, decried recent votes in the Senate and House to basically reduce the size of federal land holdings by sale, gift, or devolution. Rogers makes the economic case for public lands based on tourism, recreation, and the like: “In 2013, the country’s national parks, wildlife refuges, monuments and other public lands had an estimated 407 million visits, which contribute $41 billion to the economy and helped to support 355,000 jobs,” according to a Department of Interior report.
Rogers makes some valid points, but this whole discussion needs more granularity as to which lands serve what purposes. Not all lands are equal in terms of environmental or economic value or function. This subject is very much in need of unbundling to discern which lands should be sold, devolved, or kept as they are.
Environmentalists argue the case for biodiversity, habitat protection, and water quality in defense of federal land holdings. The National Academies (formerly the National Academies of Science) recently reported that “Forests cycle water from precipitation through soil and ultimately deliver it as streamflow that is used to supply nearly two-thirds of the clean water supply in the United States.” There are benefits to protected lands be they federal or state. But the environmental community prefers federal over state ownership because of all the restrictions that render them inefficient if not outright dysfunctional.
In truth, some (not all) environmentalists don’t care if any USFS projects go forward. Many adhere to the myth of nature untouched and unmanaged by human hands that has not been the case even in pre-Columbian times. In fact, drought, climate variability, and invasive species necessitate greater human intervention in natural landscapes whether we like it or not. The proverbial genie is out of the bottle.
The evidence documenting ineffective federal management of BLM and USFS land, the multiple-use landscapes, seems pretty compelling. However, the case for a freebie or gratis devolution to western states is unthinkable given the entitlement crisis and looming bankruptcy facing the federal fisc. And why not enhance private sector empowerment by allowing private parties, including conservation organizations, to bid on some lands in competition with states? Moreover, some lands — national parks, wildlife refuges, iconic “viewsheds” and key headwaters areas — should be off the table, if not from devolution than from development inconsistent with these designated purposes. In many cases sold or devolved lands should be encumbered with restrictive covenants ensuring they keep their character as forests, grasslands, wetlands, etc.
The brief plan outlined above seems very reasonable and nearly impossible politically. We will need something like a BRAC, or Base Closure and Realignment Commission, to review the federal lands portfolio, categorize those for sale, those for devolution, and those to remain in the federal estate. The initiative should be limited to western lands for now unless eastern states object strongly. One half of the country would be challenging enough. This would be an intensely political exercise, but politics is inescapable in this matter. One possible sweetener for a deal may be dedicating a percentage of the land sale proceeds (15 percent?) to habitat restoration and reforestation on public and private lands (in the case of endangered species listings).
Ultimately, Congress would reserve the right to accept or reject the recommendation of the commission in toto.
Not perfect but not bad for government work.