Western States Fighting for Control of Federal Lands

Published October 6, 2015

A new report from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) highlights a growing rift between Western states and the national government over what the states argue is gross mismanagement of the federal lands within their borders.

According to ALEC, more than 50 bills to transfer public lands from the federal government to state control were offered in or adopted by state legislatures in 2015.

On average, the national government controls more than 50 percent of the land within the borders of the 12 most western states, including 81 percent of Nevada and 66 percent of Utah. The national government controls just 4 percent of land in the 38 non-western states. Utah and its western neighbors are increasingly calling for the same treatment, with some Western lawmakers contending states could better manage the resources. 

Federal Land Mismanagement

ALEC calculates taxpayers lose $2 billion annually due to federal mismanagement of public lands. Federal land management agencies also face large maintenance backlogs, the study found. The National Park Service alone had a backlog of more than $11 billion of work, as of 2014.

The report highlights research from the Property and Environment Research Center showing every dollar spent by the federal government managing lands in Arizona, Idaho, Montana, and New Mexico returned just 73 cents to the federal treasury, whereas every dollar spent by those state governments on their public lands earned a return of $14.51.

Karla Jones, director of the ALEC Task Force on International Relations and Federalism and author of the federal lands report, says the disparity between federal and state management largely comes down to bureaucracy, with the federal government’s “use it or lose it budgeting” giving federal agencies no incentive to cut costs. 

Wildfire Concerns

Advocates of transferring federal land to the states contend states would be better stewards of the environment on public lands, as well as managing them more economically.

From 1980–89, during the Reagan administration, the number of large wildfires on federal lands averaged 140 per year. Because the amount of logging declined by 80 percent and hundreds of forest roads were closed since 1989, the number of large wildfires has risen substantially, topping 250 large fires annually from 2000–09. The U.S. Forest Service reports more than half the agency’s budget will go toward dealing with wildfires in 2015, up from just 16 percent in 1995.

Although critics of plans to transfer federal lands to the states question whether states can assume the growing costs of fighting wildfires, proponents argue federal mismanagement has exacerbated the wildfire problem.

“Of course the states cannot afford to manage fires and forests the way the federal government does,” said Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory (R-Salt Lake County).

Ivory says reducing the fuel loads—trees and other combustible material—in these areas would reduce the problem.

Jones suggests states could create additional road access to “give firefighters greater ability to get to fires while they’re still small.”

Battle in Utah

In Utah, Ivory has led the fight to put federal lands in the state’s hands. Utah passed a resolution in 2012 demanding the federal government turn over land to the state. Its deadline came and went with no transfers.

Ivory says federal land ownership fails on a number of fronts.

“It’s not working for the environment, it’s not working for access, it’s not working for productivity, and it’s not working for eastern states,” Ivory said.

Commenting on the local economic impact of federal land ownership, Ivory said, “Economically, it’s just a tragedy throughout the West. It’s really just crippling and crushing the American spirit of ingenuity and freedom and opportunity.”

A joint study by economists at three Utah universities concluded a “drag” on economic growth occurs when 40–45 percent of a county’s land is owned and managed by federal agencies. The report noted 20 of Utah’s 29 counties exceeded that level of federal ownership.

Ann N. Purvis, J.D. ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.

Internet Info:

Karla Jones, “Federally Managed Lands in the West: The Economic and Environmental Implications for the States,” September 3, 2015: https://www.heartland.org/policy-documents/federally-managed-lands-west-economic-and-environmental-implications-states

Jan Elise Stambro, et al., “An Analysis of a Transfer of Federal Lands to the State of Utah,” November 2014: https://www.heartland.org/policy-documents/analysis-transfer-federal-lands-state-utah