Viewpoint: States Should Take Control Of Our Outmoded Public Land System

States should take control of our outmoded public land system

Robert Nelson, University of Maryland

Late last month the Senate passed a non-binding budget resolution that encourages the selling or transfer of federal lands to state and local governments. With a Republican Congress, the longstanding question over federal management of public lands is resurfacing once again with renewed urgency.

The federal government owns large parts of the forests, deserts and other rural areas of the American West – in total around half of all the land in the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Coast states. Roughly 30% of federal lands are made up of wilderness and national parks, while the rest are used for timber harvesting, grazing, energy leasing and recreation.

This pervasive federal presence is a product of policies championed at the turn of the 20th century.

Throughout the nineteenth century, however, the government aggressively disposed of its land holdings to private landowners and state governments, seeking to advance economic development and the pursuit of “manifest destiny.” It was in the period from 1890 to 1920 that American Progressives successfully argued that these lands would be more expertly managed in federal hands.

After more than 100 years of experience, we now know otherwise, that these lands would be better under state or private management. It’s a lesson I learned well during almost two decades at the Department of the Interior working as a policy analyst in the Office of the Secretary.

Instead of much greater efficiency, the research conducted by myself and others has shown that federal management turned out to be wasteful – typical of many government-owned enterprises around the world over the course of the 20th century – as well as detrimental to the land itself.

High costs, poor return

Federal “multiple-use” lands (excluding national parks and other special use lands) averaged US$7.2 billion in costs per year from 2009 to 2013, according to a recent report from the Property and Environmental Research Center (PERC), a non-profit think tank that seeks market solutions to environmental problems. At the same time they brought in just $5.3 billion in revenues (mostly royalties from oil, gas and coal leases in a few energy rich states).

Over the same period, similar state-owned lands returned $14.5 for every dollar spent on management while achieving comparable or better land results in areas such as the use of forest and rangeland resources.

Because public land costs are such a tiny part of the immense federal budget, the issue seldom receives close scrutiny, relieving pressure on the government to manage its lands more efficiently. And since all taxpayers bear the costs, states themselves have little incentive to put pressure on federal managers to raise revenues or reduce expenses.

Layers of red tape

Even if they wanted to, it would be difficult for federal land managers to bring their expert skills to bear. Over the years, layer upon layer of requirements for environmental impact statements, land use plans and other regulatory and procedural steps have created a suffocating burden of red tape.

In 2002 in The Process Predicament, the US Forest Service begged for relief, declaring that ““unfortunately, the Forest Service operates within a statutory, regulatory and administrative framework that has kept the agency from effectively addressing rapid declines in forest health.”

Poorly managed western forests, for example, had become overstocked with large volumes of “excess fuels.” From the 1980s onwards, these dead trees and limbs increasingly erupted into large, environmentally damaging conflagrations, requiring billions of dollars to be spent annually on forest fire suppression.

Beyond the executive branch, federal courts have also gotten more involved in public land use, drastically increasing their role since the 1970s and now often dictating even local management details. For example, federal judges have blocked many specific timber sales in the West, for example, to protect biodiversity.

The wasted energy opportunity

The United States has been experiencing an energy revolution in recent years owing to new methods of extracting oil and gas from shale. Because of the cumbersome federal land bureaucracy, the lack of incentives and other constraints, however, this revolution has largely bypassed the public lands.

Charles Merrill, a professor at Columbia law school, noted in the Case Western Reserve Law Review in 2013 that in “looking at a map of the United States where fracking activity is underway, and comparing it to a map showing areas of land and associated mineral rights that are controlled by the federal government,” one finds that “there is very little overlap” – and not due to any lack of oil and gas shale resources in the West.

None of this is news, admittedly. At public land conferences since the early 1990s, economists, political scientists, retired federal managers and other professionals have lamented the “dysfunctional” public land system. Yet, little has changed over that period. This is partly a consequence of the increasing partisanship and other dysfunctions that have afflicted many other areas of federal policy making and administration.

It is also, however, a result of the deep ambivalence felt by many Westerners about reducing the federal presence. The large flows of “wasted” federal money also represent an important economic asset for the rural West. Perhaps the truest statement ever made with respect to their attitudes towards the public lands is that westerners want the federal government to “go away and give us more money.”

Growing Western anger

The federal government, however, has not gone away. With the level of Western frustration growing, and the federal government increasingly strapped for funds to send to the West, pressure for change has mounted in recent years. Western states are now threatened, for example, with the designation of the sage grouse as an endangered species, an action that would put many millions of acres of Western rangeland under tight federal control.

In 2014, Utah conducted a comprehensive study of the implications of transferring ordinary public lands and their federal management costs and revenues to the state. The study showed that if Utah had replicated federal management practices in 2013, the state would have incurred $117 million in net additional costs.

Projecting these results across the full West, the fiscal benefits to the federal government could exceed $1 billion per year for transferring ordinary public lands – predominantly used for timber harvesting, livestock grazing, and hiking, hunting, fishing and other state and local recreational use, along with highly profitable energy leasing – to state ownership. National parks, wilderness areas and the other most valuable nationally owned lands would remain in federal hands.

Western states need to decide: do they want the federal government to go away or do they want the federal money?

If the West were to decide to assume greater control of its lands, states would not only be able to improve the quality of management but also do it at much lower costs and earn much higher net revenues than the federal government.

This would be possible in part because they would be free of federal judicial micro-management and the many rules and regulatory entanglements that have made effective federal management of the public lands so difficult for more than 20 years.

It’s time the US turned the page on the era of federal ownership of public lands and resumed transferring land to the states in order to raise more revenue and improve its management.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

[photo via Todd Petrie/flickr]

Sen. Tom Berryhill On SB 787 And CEQA Reform

“The Legislature is quick to support waiving CEQA when it comes to a stadium for an NFL or NBA team but silent when it comes to making the process work for the rest of us. SB 787 in no way would have circumvented CEQA or weakened the environmental protections put in place by CEQA. What it would have done is get at the heart of the problem –- projects being delayed or killed for reasons other than environmental concerns.”

Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, after his legislation (SB 787) was defeated in the Senate Environmental Quality Committee on a party line vote (Modesto Bee, 4 May 2013)

Important Public Viewing Details Within Environmental Documents…

California Department of Water Resources recently released the Draft Program Environmental Impact Report (PEIR) for its Small Erosion Repair Program (SERP).

I noticed this helpful page (1-8) within the document that contained the addresses and operating hours of public facilities where people can view printed copies of the document. It’s a small touch that reminds people that there are multiple avenues to view these public documents through the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process.

The complete document can be downloaded here.

Safe Routes To School Even More Important In California After Trigger Cuts To Budget


It seems all those years of grassroots efforts to implement Safe Routes to School programs across California was not for nothing. As the state economy continues to stagnate, Gov. Jerry Brown instituted the trigger cuts that will wipe out Home–to–School Transportation (i.e., school bus services) in order to save $248 million.

Of course, not every school district can afford to not provide school bus services due to some Federal mandates, which mean they will need to cut from other programs in their already diminished school budgets to make up the difference.

[photos via Boston Child Brain Injury Blog | smithereen11]

California High-Speed Rail Authority Releases Draft EIR/EIS Documents For Central Valley Segments

California High-Speed Rail

The California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) just released its long awaited joint Draft Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement (EIR/EIS) documents for the two Central Valley segments: Merced to Fresno and Fresno to Bakersfield.

The two joint environmental documents are very lengthy, both consisting of three Volumes (Report, Technical Appendices, and Alignments and Other Plans) and soon-to-be released Technical Reports (on 12 August 2011).

I doubt anyone has read through much of either document, but you can be sure the CHSRA and its consultant teams will be thoroughly reviewing the possibly hundreds (and maybe even thousands) of formal comments that will be sent before the end of the official Public Comment Period (28 September 2011).

Merced to Fresno Segment

“Merced to Fresno Section Alternatives and Design Options” Figure [1. California High-Speed Rail Authority, Figure S-2: “Merced to Fresno Section Alternatives and Design Options,” S-3.]

California High-Speed Rail - Merced to Fresno Segment

Fresno to Bakersfield Segment

“Fresno to Bakersfield Section Project Alternatives” Figure [2. California High-Speed Rail Authority, Figure S-2: “Fresno to Bakersfield Section Project Alternatives” S-4.]

California High-Speed Rail - Fresno to Bakersfield Segment

The EIR/EIS Report

The EIR/EIS Report consists of the following[3. California High-Speed Rail Authority.]:

-Chapter 1.0, Project Purpose, Need, and Objectives explains why the project is proposed and provides a history of the planning process.

-Chapter 2.0, Alternatives, describes the proposed Merced to Fresno Section alternatives and design options, HST station options, and heavy maintenance facility options, as well as the No Project Alternative used for purposes of comparison. It contains illustrations and maps and provides a review of construction activities. These first two chapters help the reader understand what is being analyzed in the remainder of the document.

-Chapter 3.0, Affected Environment, Environmental Consequences, and Mitigation Measures is where the reader can find information about the existing transportation, environmental, and social conditions in the area of the proposed project. This chapter provides the findings of the analysis of potential environmental impacts, along with methods to reduce these impacts (called mitigation measures).

-Chapter 4.0, Section 4(f)/Section 6(f) Evaluation summarizes parks, and historic properties in accordance with Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966 and Section 6(f) of the Land and Water Conservation Funds Act. It describes avoidance alternatives and measures to minimize harm to these resources.

-Chapter 5.0, Project Costs and Operations, summarizes the estimated capital and operations and maintenance costs for each Merced to Fresno Section alternative evaluated in the Project EIR/EIS, including funding and financial risk.

-Chapter 6.0, CEQA/NEPA Decision Process and Other Considerations, summarizes the project’s significant adverse environmental effects, including those which cannot be avoided if the project is implemented. It also summarizes the significant irreversible environmental changes that would occur as a result of the project or irretrievable commitments of resources or foreclosure of future options.

-Chapter 7.0, Public and Agency Involvement, contains summaries of coordination and outreach activities, with agencies and the general public.

-Chapter 8.0, EIR/EIS Distribution identifies individuals and organizations informed of the availability of the Draft Project EIR/EIS.

-Chapter 9.0, List of Preparers provides the names and responsibilities of the authors of the Draft Project EIR/EIS.

-Chapter 10.0, References/Sources Used in Document Preparation, cites the references and contacts used in writing this document.

-Chapter 11.0, Glossary of Terms, provides a definition of certain terms used in the Project EIR/EIS.

-Chapter 12.0, Index, provides a tool to cross-reference major topics used in the Project EIR/EIS.

-Chapter 13.0, Acronyms and Abbreviations, defines the acronyms and abbreviations used in this document.

[image via SmartPlanet]