The Challenges of Federal vs. State Land Ownership

The Challenges of Federal vs. State Land Ownership

June 1, 2017 by Alex Hladkyj

A political resurgence among lawmakers to transfer federal public lands to individual states is gaining momentum.  This revival is reminiscent of the Sagebrush Rebellion and subsequent legislation considered by many western states during the late 1970s and 1980s. The rhetoric of the Sagebrush Rebellion is similar to current initiatives arguing for greater state government control or outright ownership of federal public lands.  This movement is concentrated in western states because much of the eastern U.S. has already distributed ownership to state, local, and private entities. Western states containing huge tracts of federal public lands like national parks, national forests, and BLM land are at center stage. 

Utah, home to RMFI’s longest running stewardship project in Indian Creek, is currently pushing hard to gain control of public lands within its borders.  Specifically, by rolling back public land protections, Utah is making it easier to transfer ownership.  A few examples include initiatives to rescind Bears Ears National Monument and shrink the borders of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.  These two actions are supported by several Utah legislators and backed by Trump’s executive order instructing Interior Secretary Zinke to review up to 40 national monuments created within the past 21 years. Utah also enrolled HCR1; a resolution demanding that the fed hand over significant portions of land under its control. It should be noted that since the inception of the new administration, this resolution has been toned down from a harsh demand to a pressing request.  In a summary, HCR1 no longer threatens to sue the federal government if Utah’s requests are not met and declares a commitment to remaining a “public land state” after transfer of ownership is complete.

Supporters of public land transfer range from those interested in localized environmental stewardship to those set on growing local economies via energy development.  A common argument for increasing state land rests on the assumption that land management issues are best addressed by people closest to the task at hand.  In other words, federal oversight is often criticized for being too disconnected from local communities to make the right management decisions.  Additionally, federal decisions often move very slow, which further frustrates supporters of localized land ownership who want swift action.

Another argument for state control rests on the financial cost of managing land on the federal level.  Many who are monetarily concerned see the fed as a poor management choice since a direct profit is not made. Immense backlogged maintenance expenses are cited along with other examples like the high cost of acquiring multiple national parks in recent history.  Sources like the American Lands Council claim shifting ownership would fix this concern in a report. To elaborate, states’ regulatory frameworks are often dispositioned to generating profits from their lands.  This is partially a result of the states’ fiduciary responsibility to balance budgets.

Energy development is also a big part of this conversation, as it plays a significant role in a state’s economy. A typical complaint is environmental protections under the fed are usually more stringent than those enforced on state, local, or private levels.  This obviously can make it more difficult to exploit fossil fuel resources in a robust manner.

Certainly all these arguments have merit and should be considered while discerning land management mechanisms that are inclusive to all stakeholders. With the idea of inclusiveness in mind, it is important to discuss those who are against federal public land transfer and the reasons supporting their stance. 

Conservationists, environmental organizations, and leaders in the outdoor recreation community among many others are putting up a strong opposition to public lands transfer.  A core value shared by many of these groups is maintaining the collective ownership of public lands by all Americans.  It is argued that once these landscapes are given to individual states, Americans could lose access as well as a shared voice in the way these places are managed.  If transfer is successful, these lands could become treated much like private land; possibly eliminating land access needed for outdoor recreation activities like hiking, fishing, camping, and much more.  Although federal decisions are sometimes ridiculed for not considering local needs, it should be noted that a public comment period is required when instituting policy change.  A good example showcasing how the fed allows all Americans to have a say in national land policy is the recent comment period on Bears Ears National Monument.

As mentioned earlier, many advocates of state ownership assert that the financial benefit of transfer makes it a clear option. However, those favoring federal control insist on looking at other long term economic gains tied to public lands. Revenue generated from the outdoor recreation community is one of the best examples. RMFI’s blog post from May 2017 showcases just how significant outdoor recreation supports the U.S. economy as a multi-billion dollar industry. States like Utah playing political hardball to win over ownership are starting to feel pushback from the outdoor community. For example, Outdoor Retailer, an annual expo hosted in Salt Lake City responsible for pulling in 45 million dollars a year and over 40,000 visitors, has left Utah after 20 years due to legislator’s attempts to roll back public land protections.

Another important factor when considering the financial component is the fact that states may become burdened by the costs of taking over such vast geographic areas. This is especially true for addressing wildfires accounting for 3.1 billion dollars annually of the federal budget on average. A report by the Center for Western Priorities provides a discussion of how states could be affected by shouldering wildfire costs.

Keeping federal oversight also makes sense for big picture management objectives.  Watersheds that span across the west and protection of endangered species with habitat in multiple states are two good examples where a more centralized management approach could have an advantage.

Arguments presented in this blog post are certainly not exhaustive, but provide an idea of the complexity surrounding public land. With so many challenges in the federal vs. state ownership debate, how do we move forward? Although the answer will not be simple, perhaps taking a more collaborative approach is worth exploring. NCSL provides a good example while describing Colorado’s House Bill 1225 in an article. This bill offers technical and financial support to local governments while increasing communication with those on the federal level.  Perhaps a middle ground could move this issue to resolve. Exploring the interests of all stakeholders and understanding different perspectives will be imperative in securing the future of our nation’s public lands.

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