Recent debates have flared in the western United States over federal versus state ownership of public lands. Bills concerning the transfer of some public lands to states have been introduced in the U.S. Congress and many western state legislatures, though none have become law.
At the heart of the issue is a dispute over:
- Who has the best knowledge and perspective to manage these lands?
- Who should benefit from them?
- Who can pay for it?
Local interests argue they are better suited to make land management decisions in their states, while federal proponents argue that they can better manage resources with long-term and national interests in mind.
Federally owned land accounts for 47 percent of the combined area of Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. These lands are managed through several agencies, most notably the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.
The National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Department of Defense also control substantial land holdings. Each of these agencies has different management directives, but their goals include conservation, recreation, ecosystem health, timber harvesting, grazing access and energy production.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 12 percent of the nation's natural gas supplies and 7 percent of its oil came from onshore federal lands in fiscal year 2013.
Both Sides Now
Proponents of federal management argue that larger federal budgets provide the capacity to make long-term resource goals - such as wildlife and ecosystem management - a higher priority. They contend that the federal government is not incentivized by revenue in their land management policy, whereas states' more limited budgets encourage managing for short-term gain, selling land and harvesting resources like timber or minerals to make ends meet.
The federal government also has the ability to fund major expenditures such as wildfire management, which costs taxpayers $3.5 billion per year on average, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Some states' advocates argue that state managers could allocate complex wildfire funds more flexibly without federal mandates. However, those types of expenditures often rely heavily on resources like aircraft and highly trained crews, which currently are made available through federal infrastructure.
Advocates for state ownership argue that states are best equipped to make management decisions because local residents are the most directly impacted.
In such instances, states point to uncertainty over federal management as a particular source of frustration; for example, it is difficult for companies to invest in mines or drilling sites when currently available land could be protected as a national monument at the president's discretion.
State ownership would allow state and local governments to make these decisions, collect any energy and mineral royalties or logging and grazing fees, and distribute that revenue to benefit their communities as they see fit.
State advocates also argue that federal ownership of land prevents them from collecting the property taxes they would receive if the land were privately owned, which they assert would be a major revenue source. Currently, the government awards funds to compensate for this through the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program. However, even if states took over these lands and proposed to sell a majority of them, there is no guarantee that they would find buyers, thus leaving states without PILT funds and with less tax revenue than expected.
Diverse stakeholders of public lands further complicate this issue. For example, both local and out-of-state hunting and outdoor organizations typically favor federal ownership; they have expressed concerns about losing access to land through privatization and increased fees that could occur with state-owned land.
Likewise, conservation advocates question states' ability and incentive to maintain wilderness and wildlife protections.
Conversely, energy, mining and logging interests would likely benefit from easier access to resources and expedited permitting associated with state ownership, which could bring jobs and revenue to local communities.
Instead of the sweeping takeovers proposed by several state legislatures, more nuanced compromises have been recently proposed.
U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who will chair the House Natural Resources Committee in the 114th Congress, has been working with stakeholders to design the Utah Public Lands Initiative. After decades of gridlock - with conservatives blocking any bill designating wilderness land, and federal or environmental protections that might complicate access to resource development getting blocked - the stakeholders involved are ready for a compromise.
Bishop's office has reached out to dozens of diverse interest groups and is working on a plan to swap state and federal lands in several eastern Utah counties, allowing drilling and mining in certain areas to generate revenue for local schools, while also protecting large wilderness tracts and designating areas for tourism development.
Despite the concessions required by all sides, the initiative has won praise from conservation groups, industry interests and local residents.
The bill is still in development, but Daggett County recently became the first participating county to contribute its finalized plan to the project. Bishop plans to introduce the multi-county bill in Congress in early 2015.
It remains to be seen where this management and ownership debate will go from here - full state takeovers of federal lands are unlikely to come to fruition; the legality of states' claims is debatable, and recent studies, including one from the University of Idaho, have suggested that it could be economically difficult for states to profit from these lands.
However, the process of negotiation and compromise between diverse stakeholders, as exemplified by the Utah Public Lands Initiative, may provide a road map forward that could be replicated in other western states.