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Evidence Clearly in Favor of State Land Management

The Wilderness Society is currently in the middle of a misguided petition campaign to stop the transfer of federal lands into state hands.

The organization’s mission says they aim to “contribute to better protection, stewardship and restoration of our public lands.” This makes it hard to understand why the WS is taking the stance it is on this issue. Given that mission statement, the WS ought to instead join forces with the eleven western states seeking to have federal lands returned to state ownership and management. Such a transfer could stop the forced taxpayer subsidies of a byzantine federal bureaucracy that shows a lower level of both fiduciary and environmental responsibility than their state counterparts.

A March 2015 report from the Property and Environment research Center (PERC)[1] in Montana explains why.

Whether public lands are used for timber harvest, mineral extraction, grazing, or recreation, state land management in the four Western states studied return significant revenue. Federal management, meanwhile, relies heavily on taxpayer subsidies.

This is partly because of different regulatory systems – even federal land managers decry the level of bureaucracy involved in their assigned tasks. States, like the feds, are required to carry out environmental assessments in processes that allow public input. But state regulations are less byzantine, allowing state land managers to work more efficiently, at a lower cost, and in more successful collaboration with the public than federal land managers.

Another explanation for the difference in revenue lies in the different fiscal rules that govern the respective management authorities.

State lands in the West are largely arranged into land trusts, benefiting public interests –public schools, universities, hospitals, and other public institutions. Land trusts are shouldered with a responsibility to generate financial returns for their “shareholders” (beneficiaries).

BLM and the USFS, on the other hand, receive their funding through Congressional appropriations. These agencies have no incentive to generate revenue. On the contrary, they have a disincentive, as any appropriations not spent in a fiscal year often means lower appropriations in the future, and any potential revenue is not retained by the agency.

But more than simply a financial issue, this disincentive means the connection between revenues, fiscal responsibility, and long-term stewardship is unclear in the federal management system: It’s not just more expensive – it’s less environmentally responsible.

For example, in 2011, Forest Service lands had about eight times more dead and dying timber than harvested timber. For other public lands and private lands, the ratio is approximately 1:1 – which makes for healthier forests, less damage from bark beetles, and fewer damaging forest fires.

The Wilderness Society also claims that:

“To pay for managing millions of additional acres, states would resort to privatizing or auctioning these lands for drilling, mining, and logging. Because these lands could be owned solely by extractive industries to maximize profits, Americans, such as myself, could lose access to some of our most treasured natural areas to hunt, camp, fish, hike, and watch wildlife.”

State land trusts do not generally sell lands to “extractive industries” – they only lease the right to use the surface or subsurface (or both) for period of time. Multiple use of the surface is the rule, not the exception.

In addition, state ownership and management of public lands provides an option the environmental industry ought to treasure: The leasing of lands for conservation. In 1996, New Mexico awarded a grazing lease to an environmental group that outbid a rancher for a land parcel intended for grazing. Many other states allow conservation and habitat restoration as alternative use of grazing leases – a usage that is prohibited on federal lands.

Also, a recent amendment to the federal budget resolution brought by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) suggests looking into selling federal lands to help pay down the deficit. Under the terms of the various statehood acts, if a state sells off the public lands, it has to give a large chunk of the money to the feds. So it’s the feds who have an incentive to privatize, not the states.

A quote from H.L. Mencken comes to mind:

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

Rather than set up straw men to fight against, our state and country needs people on all sides to debate with facts and logic, and who are open-minded enough to unconditionally look for solutions and collaborative opportunities.

[1] http://perc.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/150303_PERC_DividedLands.pdf

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