Some advice for Gale Norton

Published May 1, 2001

The agencies in Secretary Gale Norton’s Department of Interior, plus the U.S. Forest Service (under the auspices of the Department of Agriculture), together manage well over one-quarter of the land in the United States. There is near-unanimous agreement, among government officials and policy analysts alike, that the federal government’s system for managing those lands has failed.

On that point, however, is where agreement ends. While something clearly needs to be done, few agree on what that something should be. What can Interior Secretary Gale Norton do to improve public land management without provoking controversy and polarization?

Today’s model

The current system under which federally owned lands are managed relies on agencies with multi-layered, military-like hierarchies; funds them chiefly out of appropriations; and forbids them from charging for many resources, or from keeping most of the fees they do charge.

The people who developed this model a century ago assumed that professional land managers would automatically make the right decisions about the land. Today, we understand that federal land managers are torn between loyalties to the resources they manage, the people who use them, the congressional leaders who fund them, and the agencies themselves. In this situation, gridlock is sometimes the best result we could hope for, since anything other than gridlock can result in environmental devastation at taxpayers’ expense.

Other models available

This isn’t the only way to manage public lands. States, for example, use very different models. Many state wildlife agencies are nonprofit organizations, funded exclusively out of license fees and other receipts. Many state forest agencies are trusts, earning profits for schools and other beneficiaries. Most states substitute citizen boards or commissions for the multi-layered bureaucracies. The results are often better both for the environment and for taxpayers.

The question for Norton (and, for the Forest Service, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman) is this: How do you reform a giant federal agency without simply making it more centralized than before? The Clinton administration flunked this test, as most federal land agencies today are far more top heavy than they were eight years ago.

The best answer has come from several different groups that recently and more-or-less independently developed similar proposals. They urge that alternative models be tested as pilot projects on selected National Forests, National Parks, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) districts, and other federal land units. Most of these groups included a balanced combination of commodity interests, environmentalists, policy analysts, and agency officials:

  • Environmentalists, timber industry officials, and Forest Service leaders on the Forest Options Group have proposed five national forest pilot projects (;

While most of these groups agree that the current federal land model does not work, the variety exhibited by these pilot proposals reflects the lack of agreement on what should be done instead:

  • Many National Forests and Parks already collect more user fees than they spend, so some pilots propose to fund land managers out of a share of the receipts they produce. These pilots would receive seed money from Congress but no further appropriations.
  • Other pilots propose to replace the multi-level bureaucracy with a board of directors. The boards might be appointed, collaboratively chosen, or even elected by a “friends of the forest/park” group. Funding would continue to come from congressional appropriations.
  • The most intriguing pilots propose that federal lands be managed as a legal trust obligated to produce a profit for some beneficiary, such as a local biodiversity preservation program.

Give pilot programs a chance

To develop sound data on what works and what doesn’t, most proposals would test pilots for five years. None would weaken any environmental laws. More than 1,000 National Forests, Parks, and other federal land units provide plenty of opportunities to test pilots in many different situations.

For pilot projects to happen, they need the support of local congressional delegations, local agency managers, and a variety of interest groups. Norton and Veneman can best embrace the pilot program model by using their cabinet positions to encourage land managers and interest groups to step forward with project proposals. They should then ask Congress to grant broad authority to experiment with pilot projects, or at least to go along if projects bend bureaucratic rules.

In stark contrast with the heavy-handed, top-down reforms attempted by many administrations, pilot projects can reform agencies from the bottom up. This new (at the federal level) paradigm will improve public land conservation while adhering to traditional American principles of decentralization and innovation.

Randal O’Toole ([email protected]) is senior economist with the Thoreau Institute ( and author of the recent book, The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths.