NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Bringing Federal Land under State Control

February 20, 2014

Western states are pushing for the federal government to transfer its lands to state jurisdiction, says Holly Fretwell, a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center.

Fretwell describes the various options that could lead to improved management of federal lands:

  • Privatization: Entrepreneurs are driven by profit maximization and competition, unlike Congress, which controls the financing of federal land agencies based on constituents and special interests. As such, funding is based on political priorities and generally does not actually address the most important concerns. Indeed, management of the 27 million acres of federal land in Montana is determined by 535 politicians, only three of whom actually live in Montana.
  • Changing the rules: The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) has created massive gridlock, delay, uncertainty and litigation. Doing away with NEPA and placing management responsibility in the hands of state and local entities would transfer decision making to the places that would most directly feel the impact of those decisions.
  • Holding lands in trust: States already have land trusts that generate revenue for education. The idea could be expanded to federal lands, and private parties and groups can bid for land use. While a federal agency would control the terms of any land lease, the winning bidder would have control over management and use of the resources.
  • Federal-to-state transfers: This would mean a simple transfer of federal land to state control. However, legislation governing land management and incentives are the most important factors in effective land management, not merely whether it is owned by the federal government or the states. While some states, such as New Hampshire and Vermont, operate state parks very effectively, others, such as California and Arizona, have proven inept at management.
  • Private-public partnerships: Federal agencies maintain ownership of the land in these cases, but private firms bid for the right to manage it. A portion of the revenues that are generated by private management are then paid to the agency. These partnerships result in savings for the federal government, profits for the private entity and lower costs for visitors to the land.

Incentives are crucial in determining how land is used. Today, federal control over these areas means that resource maximization is not the driving factor behind land management. Rather than long-term stewardship, federal land management is driven by political pressures, leaving lands underutilized. Restructuring our current system of land management would improve the process and allow the true value of our land and resources to be realized.

Source: Holly L. Fretwell, "Bringing Local Knowledge to Federal Lands," R Street, February 2014.


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