Indefinitely Wild

Why You Don't Want the States Managing Public Land

The GOP doesn't think the feds should oversee our national heritage. Here's why they're wrong.

A hunter surveys Montana's Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. (Bureau of Land Management)
montana

States should manage the public lands within their own borders, right? It sounds like one of those common sense, local management, small government things that will be in the citizens’ best interests.

It’s actually exactly the opposite.

That's because the federal government is mandated to manage public lands for multiple uses. So for-profit enterprises, like logging and drilling, need to co-exist with folks who want to hike, bike, and play on those lands, as well as the wildlife that already lives there. In contrast, states are mandated to manage their lands for profit, which means logging and drilling take precedent over public access and environmental concerns.

The difference really is that simple, and it's really all you need to know to understand why federal management is better for our wild places than state management. But the ramifications of that difference are incredibly far reaching.

Budgets and Bankruptcies

As 2017 has demonstrated painfully well, fighting wildfires can be incredibly expensive. It can even put a dent in the federal government’s massive coffers—$300 million had to be written into the Hurricane Harvey relief bill to help the U.S. Forest Service supplement its fire-fighting budget this year. The feds can absorb that cost, but what would happen if a state government got suck with such a bill? Go back to that for-profit mandate and it’s easy to see why a state would have to sell off vast tracts of what was previously public land in order to cover those costs. 

Increased Costs

Currently, our nation’s 640 million acres of public land cost the average taxpayer about $4 a year in federal taxes, spread out among citizens of all 50 states. But because most of that land lies in sparsely populated western states, shifting management of those vast swaths of land to the states would disproportionately affect those of us who live in the West. 

The increased cost of assuming public lands management in Utah, for instance, would be $154 million annually. That’s an additional $54 in taxes the state would need to collect from each of its three million residents—every year. 

Lower Revenues

Western states with large reserves of public land currently profit immensely from that land, without having to pay to manage it. The federal government disperses profits from its lands to local communities in the form of Payments in Lieu of Taxes, a cut of the mineral revenue generated on the lands within their borders, and through other similar mechanisms. Wyoming, for instance, earns $1.39 billion annually from the federal land within its borders, while Utah gets $185 million each year.

If Utah assumed management of its federal lands, as many of its politicians want, its revenue would dip by the $154 million mentioned above. And that’s accounting done by the anti-public lands politicians.

Decreased Access

That multiple-use mandate on federal lands means that you, I, and our fellow citizens are free to enjoy all of those 640 million acres of public land. We don’t have to just go camping in national parks—we can go camping (or enjoy any other outdoor activity) in national forests, on BLM land, or pretty much wherever else we please.

That is not the case with state land. States are not mandated to allow access, and they often don’t view their lands as a public resource. Instead, through for-profit management priorities, land is treated as a private asset of the state government to turn a profit. Is that profit derived from a logging lease? Then you won’t be able to camp there anymore. Field and Stream details lots of examples, but you get the idea. 

Less Local Input

While national policy for lands management is set in Washington D.C., there’s significant room for local interpretation, and there are processes in place designed to solicit local input. High-profile laws like NEPA, FLPMA, and NFMA, for example, all include significant mandates for gathering information from of locals when it comes to management decisions.

Granted, this kind of labyrinthine federal bureaucracy slows decision making to a crawl. But it’s that bureaucracy that ensures equitable decision making and protects the individual's voice. States have no such deeply entrenched mechanisms when it comes to land management, and are free to make decisions for their land without the input of citizens

Think about this at the hyper-local level. Due to its management priorities, it’s essentially impossible for the federal government to shut down your favorite hunting spot on Forest Service land in rural Idaho. On the other hand, if the state government managed that land, Boise could sell it to a developer without asking anyone for permission, and there’d be condos where there used to be deer by the following fall.

Decreased State Autonomy

The whole point of transferring management of public lands is to give states more authority over the lands within their borders, right? Well, a study conducted by Wyoming last year found such transfers might have the opposite effect. How? It’s extremely unlikely that a state government could afford to manage all that land without some degree of federal assistance. And federal money always comes with strings attached. Federal highway funding, for instance, is used as a tool by the federal government to impose its road-safety measures on state governments.

Some politicians are suggesting that states could simply take over management of lands within their borders, without an outright transfer of ownership, as an expedient. But, state management of federal land would also force local governments to comply with federal laws from affirmative action to the Freedom of Information Act to complicated procurement processes. Those may not sound like a huge deal, but would require additional agencies, and increased costs. Wyoming’s own government concluded that assuming management of public lands within its borders would cost more money than it’s worth as a result.

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