NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Decentralizing Public Lands

December 2, 2002

As federal land management continues to flounder, there are increasing calls for transfer of control over public lands to the states, says Robert H. Nelson of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. This would represent a major break with the model of public land management that prevailed throughout most of the twentieth century. It reflects widespread disillusionment with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) -- the two main public land agencies. Researchers have documented many failings of public land management with respective to inefficiency, gridlock, continuing capture by special interests and inability to plan effectively.

U.S. land management agencies were once hailed for their innovation and efficiency; but that perception has changed as outside forces increasingly manipulate the agencies.

  • Beginning with the 1964 Wilderness Act, the environmental movement became a force in public land management, and public land management since has been mostly a story of the interactions of environmentalists with the institutional legacies of the progressive era.
  • In the 1970s, many critics -- including then-emerging environmental organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council -- began asserting that instead of pursuing "the public interest," the agencies' actions largely reflected the private interests of ranchers, miners and timber companies.
  • With the 1974 Resources Planning Act, the Forest Service headquarters bogged down under the weight of unworkable planning requirements that diverted resources and contributed significantly to the undermining of the agency's basic administrative capabilities.

Generally, the decade from 1970 to 1980 produced an outpouring of "green" legislation, resulting in more new environmental laws than any other period in American history. By the standards of scientific management, the 1970s laws not only failed to improve public land matters, they often made outcomes worse.

Now many people in the rural West have believe that decentralized public land management is needed.

Source: Robert H. Nelson (Competitive Enterprise Institute), "Western Myths and Realities," Regulation, Summer 2002; Vol. 25, No. 2, Cato Institute.

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