Can Anyone Manage the Federal Estate?

Published January 11, 2023

Remember when air travel used to fun? Big carriers like PanAm competed with TWA and Eastern, as did smaller ones like Braniff and Piedmont, each claiming to offer better food and more comfortable seats. They’re all gone now. The big mergers started in 2001 with American and TWA. Delta and Northwest merged in 2008, followed by Continental and United, American and U.S. Airways, and others. Each time, pundits invariably asked if the company might finally be too big for anyone to manage. Comedians joked about a fictitious new slogan for United Airlines: “We’re not happy ‘til you’re not happy!”

Today the nation’s largest carrier is American Airlines, followed closely by United. Between them, they have 203,000 employees, 1,634 airplanes, and serve 675 destinations. It is interesting to compare such giant companies to giant government agencies.

The federal government owns about 640 million acres of land (the size of 31 states), almost all of it managed by two presidential appointees, the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture. Under their direction, most of it is managed by five appointees: the Chief of the Forest Services, and the Directors of the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Reclamation. Those seven people are responsible for an almost unfathomable amount of land, natural resources, employees, infrastructure, and money.

The Bureau of Land Management has a $1.6 billion budget, 10,000 employees, and over 244 million acres. It is expected to manage 221 wilderness areas, 27 National Monuments, 636 National Conservation System parcels, 2,400 miles of wild and scenic rivers, 6,000 miles of national scenic and historic trails, 55 million acres of forests, 63,000 oil and gas wells, 18,000 grazing permits, 3.8 million mining claims, 309 coal mines, 46,000 abandoned mines, 5,000 miles of pipelines and transmission lines, 200,000 miles of fishing streams, 2.2 million acres of lakes and reservoirs, 6,600 miles of floatable rivers, 69 National Back Country Byways, thousands of miles of hiking, biking, and horseback trails, and 62 million recreational visitors a year.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has a similarly bewildering array of responsibilities, with a nearly $2 billion budget, 8,000 employees and 89 million acres. That includes 700 field offices, 560 national wildlife refuges, 150 million acres of wetlands and “special management areas,” six national monuments, 70 fish hatcheries, jurisdiction over 2,600 endangered species (except those under jurisdiction of the National Marine Fisheries Service) and all migratory birds.

The National Park Service has a $3.6 billion budget, 20,000 employees, 280,000 volunteers, 80 million acres, and 21,000 buildings. It manages 63 national parks, 85 national monuments, 13 national seashore/lakeshore parks, 31 national memorials, 21 preserves, 18 recreation areas, 10 wild and scenic rivers, 4 parkways, 138 historic sites, 25 battlefield and military parks, 12,250 miles of scenic trails, 85,000 miles of rivers and streams, 4.5 million acres of oceans, lakes and reservoirs, and miles of city streets in D.C.  

The Bureau of Reclamation has a $1.4 billion budget, 5,000 employees, 7.8 million acres, 1,774 buildings, 304 bridges, 2,601 miles of roads, 338 reservoirs, 487 dams, and 8,116 miles of canals.

The U.S. Forest Service, part of the Agriculture Department, has a $9 billion budget, 35,000 employees, 600 ranger districts, and 193 million acres, including 154 national forests, 209 national grasslands, 80 experimental forests, and six national monuments.

Is it humanly possible, even for seven highly qualified presidential appointees, to manage all of that efficiently? Government is not even efficient enough to put all the national monuments under one agency, nor all of the forests, mines, pipelines, rivers, or endangered species. We often criticize the one-size-fits-all approach of Washington bureaucrats, but how else could they possible manage such gigantic portfolios? No genius could possibly understand the nuances of all 154 national forests, or 18,000 grazing permits.

Some organizations say the federal government simply should not own so much land, a debatable point. But the easier debate might be about management, not ownership. Might some management be contracted out to private companies? Consider that even with similarly massive facilities, employees, and resources, United and American Airlines both net over $40 billion a year, while the Interior Department costs taxpayers $18 billion.

Colorado once proposed a pilot project for state-level management of one national forest for 20 years. The State Forester was convinced that two decades of state management would leave a demonstrably healthier forest. U.S. Forest Service officials all but laughed him out of the room, but some version of state, local, or private contracting might realistically provide a much better way to manage what is now essentially unmanageable.