Public Lands Belong in Federal Hands

The Wyoming state government recently released a study weighing the pros and cons of transferring federal lands to the state. The results were unequivocal: it's a terrible idea.

Oct 25, 2016
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Public Lands Belong in Federal Hands

Wild horses run free in Wyoming. These guys would be just one of many significant legal quagmires the state would be drawn into if it seeks management over the public land within its borders.    Photo: Adam Bailey

Right now, there's a war raging over who should have control of the 640 million acres of public land in this country. Those lands—where we hike, hunt, and camp—are home to most of our country’s incredible natural heritage. Yet the energy and mineral extraction industries have convinced Republican lawmakers it's a good idea to transfer those lands to state control, in a thinly veiled attempt to ultimately force their sale. Meanwhile, well-meaning citizens have been lied to about the true impetus behind this movement, with corporate greed masquerading as a bid to increase states’ rights.

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Here's the fundamental question: Is federal ownership and management of public lands the best policy for the people of this country? Well, Wyoming’s (conservative) government just received the results of a massive study on that very subject. The 350-page report analyzes the financial and legal repercussions of transferring the management of 25 million acres of public land in that state from federal to state control. “In essence this is a feasibility and efficiency study examining federal land management practices, costs and the revenues generated from federal public lands versus how the state manages its own lands and to explore the potential of the state taking over management of certain federal lands,” the report states. Could the state generate more income by managing public lands itself? The study arrives at a pretty clear answer. 

Public Land Is Crucial to Wyoming’s Economy

Like other western states, public lands make up a huge portion of Wyoming real estate. That land doesn't just draw visitors, but is used for mineral and energy extraction, ranching, and countless other activities. The study says: 

Over forty-eight percent (48%) of Wyoming is federal land. Access to and the use of public lands is critical to Wyoming and other western states’ economies. Public lands support many uses from activities such as bird watching to energy development. Many species of wildlife, although owned by the state, spend a significant portion of their life cycle on federally-owned lands. Public lands provide extensive opportunities for recreation and a lifestyle that more and more people are seeking in our mobile economy.

Federal Management Isn’t Perfect

Management of public lands is split across multiple federal agencies, mired in bureaucracy, and to locals, it often feels like crucial decisions are made by people who don't share their priorities. 

Management decisions on federal public lands that drastically affect western communities are heavily influenced at the national level sometimes without regard to local needs and concerns and without utilizing the special knowledge a local community possesses. Frustration has been expressed with current management of federal public lands, the impact of federal land management decisions on local economies, the length of time it takes for federal management decisions, lack of access to resources such as timber and recreation, and in some cases concerns for human health and safety. Whether it is oil and gas, grazing, hunting, or recreational uses—the lengthy and protracted permitting processes and layers of regulations have a discernible effect on the economy of local communities and the lives of citizens.

Transferring Ownership of Public Lands Is a Legal Nightmare

Utah is currently suing the federal government for ownership of public lands within its borders, an effort that could take years, cost taxpayers millions of dollars, and is already generating much controversy. Even if successful, it’s not clear how a transfer of ownership from multiple federal agencies to unknown state agencies would even take place. That state conservatively estimates the annual budget to manage those lands at $280 million, on potential revenues of $311 million. That’s if oil and gas prices remain steady, and all this assumes that the suit stands a realistic chance of succeeding. Earlier this month, The Salt Lake Tribune described the effort as “quixotic.”

wyoming-public-lands-elk
A bull elk crosses Wyoming's Snake River.   Photo: Diana Robinson

There's a Difference Between State and Federal Management

Federal and state management policies are fundamentally different, and those differences are set in legal stone. Where state management dictates profit first, federal management prioritizes the needs of citizens, and the long term health of both the land and its resources. 

The Wyoming State Constitution and the Wyoming State Legislature direct that [its] lands be managed for two key purposes: (1) long-term growth in value, and (2) optimum, sustainable revenue production. In stark contrast, the two overarching mandates that dictate the management of federal owned public lands administered by the BLM and USFS are multiple use and sustained yield (MUSY). “For this discussion, we define multiple use as the use of land for more than one purpose. For example, livestock grazing, recreation, and timber harvest could occur on the same parcel.

States Would Need Federal Money to Handle All This Land

With so many revenue sources, administration priorities, and red tape, there would necessarily be an ongoing financial exchange between state and federal governments. 

No matter the mechanism—whether a fee or a share of revenue generated—the state would have to be compensated for managing federal public lands.

Transferring Management of Public Lands Would Infringe on States’ Rights

One of the most surprising conclusions of the study is that taking over federal land would expose the state government to a vast, complicated array of existing federal laws, while subjecting it to the ups and downs of partisan politics in Congress. For instance, the Freedom of Information Act doesn't currently apply to state governments, but would create a burden of reporting if the state was to take over management of federally-owned land. And, just as federal highway funding is used as a tool to impose federal road safety measures on state governments, revenue sharing or management fees of public land could be used to reduce the freedom of states to manage land within their borders

These laws may require the state to develop additional administrative infrastructure to ensure compliance with federal labor law including developing affirmative action plans, diversity requirements and complex procurement and acquisition rules among others. Failure to fund mandates or the prohibition of the use of federal funds to fulfill existing mandates would hamper the state’s ability to successfully manage many aspects of federal lands. Prohibitions such as these can be imposed suddenly and somewhat arbitrarily by Congress in response to the dictates of political movements and political pressure over particular issues which may arise and gain momentum and support in Washington, D.C.

State and Local Communities Already Profit from Federal Management

One criticism often leveled at federal management of our public land is that those revenues don’t benefit nearby communities. That's actually wrong. In addition to the visitors, businesses, and residents this land brings to these areas, there’s a significant, direct financial contribution. It’s just been forgotten. 

Revenue received by the State of Wyoming and its political subdivisions in connection with the Lands includes the 48% of mineral revenue generated in the state that is distributed to the state, PILT payments, and Forest and SRS payment,” the study says. “The mineral revenue already being received by the state is a critical resource used to run the state and presumably none of it would be available for managing federal public lands contemplated in this study. Likewise, SRS and PILT payments are critical resources to local communities for a wide variety of government functions and purposes including but not limited to roads and schools.

In total, 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 it having to pay a cent of the federal government’s $170 million annual budget for managing that land. 

Curious what those numbers look like for Utah, given that state’s desire to take over its public lands? It receives $185.2 million annually from federally managed public lands within its borders. That’s $154.2 million a year more than it hopes to make by owning and managing the land itself.  

wyoming-public-lands-antelope
A herd of pronghorns crosses a road near Sweetwater, Wyoming.   Photo: Carfull

Other Organizations Need the Revenue from Wyoming's Public Lands

What happens to the other 52 percent of mineral revenue extracted from Wyoming? Ten percent of the remaining total goes to federal coffers, to be applied to a variety of programs. Forty percent helps fund the Bureau of Reclamation for water projects across the West. One in five western farmers relies on BOR water. The agency’s hydroelectric power stations generate 40 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. Ten trillion gallons of BOR water is delivered to 31 million people annually. The BOR manages 289 recreation sites with 90 million annual visitors. The agency’s economic output is $46 billion a year, supporting over 300,000 jobs.

It would be unlikely that Wyoming would be able to keep all or more of the revenue generated on federal lands than it already receives.

States Have Better Ways to Exert Influence Over Land Management

There are already systems in place that require federal land management agencies to consider the input of local governments and communities.

Management of federal public lands is an incredibly complex puzzle of interwoven and sometimes conflicting pieces. We believe the resources of the state would best be utilized if directed at tackling smaller pieces of this puzzle. Federal laws (NEPA, FLPMA, NFMA) require Federal agencies to give meaningful consideration to local governments’ land use plans (NRPPs) during federal agency decision making processes—generally referred to as consistency review. The adoption of a well written, research and data driven Natural Resource Policy Plan by a local government is a critical tool that allows a local government to have a substantive impact on federal decisions, plans, policies, and programs.

...They Just Don't Use Them

This report recommends using and expanding upon existing legislation that already authorizes certain mechanisms that allow for state and local community involvement in federal land management which are not currently being utilized to their fullest potential. The resources of the State of Wyoming would be better utilized being directed at fixing the problems and working to encourage the development of a system more attentive and responsive to the voice of local communities instead of directing resources towards an effort that would ultimately merely pass on the myriad of problems that exist today to the state.

In other words: put up or shut up. Wyoming and other states already have effective tools in place to influence federal management of public lands at both the state and local levels. But instead of effectively governing by using these tools, local politicians are wasting tax money pursuing solutions that at best aren’t viable, and at worst will cost citizens their natural heritage, while only benefiting special interests. 

The Bottom Line

The study is blunt about this: transferring federally managed lands to the state is a terrible idea.

We would not anticipate any substantial gains in revenue production or additional sources of revenue with any transfer of management—certainly not enough to offset the enormous costs such an endeavor would likely entail.

wyoming-public-lands-bison
A bison captured early in the morning near Yellowstone National Park.   Photo: Loren Kerns

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