Solving the Federal Land Problem

For most of its history, the U.S. government maintained a policy of transferring acquired lands to private owners and to the states. This changed around the turn of the 20th century, however, as the Progressives preached the “gospel of efficiency,” a doctrine that hailed the scientific management of natural resources by enlightened public servants. But today more and more observers believe that federal land managers have been ineffective, wasteful, and, alas, not very scientific stewards of natural resources, including raw land. Independent Institute Senior Fellow Robert H. Nelson examines these developments in his illuminating new article, “Our Languishing Public Lands,” just published in Policy Review.

The federal government owns about 50 percent of the land in the American West, and its oversight has failed the test of time. Perhaps the main reason, according to Nelson, is that political imperatives have been the primary determinant of the number of cows that are allowed to graze, the amount of roads that are built, the quantity of timber that is harvested, the pool of resources that are devoted to recreational purposes, and other matters. The Government Accountability Office has estimated the economic losses resulting from mismanagement by the Bureau of Land Management ($46 million in 2004) and the Forest Service ($68.3 million in 2004), but the real losses are likely much greater.

Privatizing all federal lands—and using the sales revenue to reduce the national debt—would be desirable, but it’s not politically feasible: ranchers, hunters, hikers, and others who have grown accustomed to decades of access under the current rules would block the complete transfer of public lands to the highest bidder. Thus, Nelson proposes several principles and strategies designed to succeed given current political realities. For example, ranchers could be given 30-year “forage leases” for use on grazing land, in place of the current ten-year permits, and they would be allowed to sell or transfer their leases to hunting clubs, environmental groups, or other parties that would then be free to manage forage resources for their own purposes.

In contrast, federal forests, which had always been used by the highest bidder, could be reclassified into a few different categories, each associated with a different type of use and management strategy. Although some lands would be transferred to the private sector, other parcels would be transferred to state or local jurisdictions, which would have stronger incentives to manage the resource efficiently than the federal government possesses.

“The final details will have to emerge from the normal give and take of politics,” Nelson writes. “But let the discussions begin.”

Our Languishing Public Lands, by Robert H. Nelson (Policy Review, 2/1/12)

The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, by Robert H. Nelson

[This post first appeared in the Feb. 7, 2012, issue of The Lighthouse, the Independent Institute‘s weekly newsletter. For a free subscription, please enter your email address here.]

Carl Close is Research Fellow and Senior Editor for The Independent Institute and Assistant Editor of The Independent Review and editor of The Lighthouse, The Independent Institute’s weekly e-mail newsletter.
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