Keeping Public Lands in Public Hands: Is this even a debate? Part 2 of 4

In Part 1 of this blog series, I introduced the subject of a debate that has been on-going for decades: Should federal lands managed and held in trust for the American people, primarily by the United States Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM), remain in federal control, or should all or portions of these lands be transferred to the states? A political resurgence among lawmakers to transfer our federal lands away from federal land management agencies and to individual states has been growing in recent years. As outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy accessing our public lands to hunt, fish, gather, and create lasting memories with friend and family, should we be concerned about this effort that is gaining momentum in many Western states or is this effort really a fool’s errand with no real world implications?

Two principle arguments by supporters of public land transfers to state control are: 1) state level control and management of public lands would result in more localized environmental stewardship, less stringent environmental protections, and better overall land management; and 2) state management of public lands would allow more opportunities for natural resource extraction and energy development, would help to boost local economies, and could be done cheaper than the high overhead cost of federal level management.

The first argument hinges on the assumption that land management issues (e.g., unhealthy forests and wildfire, soil erosion and stream degradation) are best addressed by people that live in those same rural areas. This concept has also been called “place-based” resource management and has been developed into policy, planning, and stewardship contracting efforts by USFS and BLM. Federal agency oversight of natural resource and land management issues have been criticized as being very disconnected from the needs of local communities who live near large expanses of federal lands and rely on those lands for revenue (i.e., money generated through outdoor recreation and tourism; jobs in natural resource extraction such as mining, forestry, and grazing). Instead, there is a perception by locals that decisions about how to manage public lands are slow to develop and are often made based on factors that originate from regional or national levels, rather than the community level. Additionally, less stringent environmental protection laws (e.g., National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA)) at the state and local level would allow more expedited project planning, resulting in more on the ground projects implemented and greater overall benefit to local resources and communities.


The second argument is based on conclusions by groups such as the American Land Council(ALC): that federal agencies lose billions of dollars every year managing our natural resources on federal lands. With no incentive to make a profit or at least balance their budgets, there is lost opportunity for revenue and a huge burden on the taxpayer. They claim that lands managed in trust by states are governed under laws which make those states financially responsible and accountable for balanced budgets and profits. According to a 2015 ALC report, states examined in their study (Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, and Arizona) generated on average $14.51 for every dollar spent on state trust land management and the USFS and BLM generate on average $0.73 for every dollar spent on federal land management in those same states.

In opposition of federal land transfer to state control are groups of conservationists, environmental organizations, and other leaders in outdoor recreation. A central theme to their voice opposing such a transfer is that maintaining federal ownership of public lands is of maximum benefit to all Americans. They argue that if federal land is transferred to the states, Americans could lose access to those lands, as well as lose their collective voice in how they should be managed. Furthermore, if these types of transfers are carried out, new state-level laws create loopholes making the sale of these lands to private entities much easier.

Whereas, advocates of federal land transfers to state control tout greater financial benefits to individual states, opponents point to revenue generated from things like outdoor recreation as a huge financial benefit to local communities. The Rocky Mountain Field Institutein May 2017, showcased estimates of revenue generated through the outdoor recreation community as a multi-billion dollar industry. They argue that federal land transfers to state control and state land trusts could significantly limit public access to those lands, thereby reducing the amount of revenue generated through outdoor recreation.

Another financial consideration that opponents point out is the potential burden that states would face by taking on management of public lands on such a large scale. For example, wildfires can cost millions to billions of dollars annually for many states, with the federal government spending over 3 billion dollars annually on fire suppression activities. Large expenses like this could send many western states such as Utah or Nevada into a financial crisis or bankruptcy, which could result in the need to liquidate state owned lands and sell in to private ownership, thereby further reducing or eliminating the public’s access to those lands.


A final argument by some opponents is that it would be difficult to achieve landscape scale resource management objectives if management of those lands was fragmented due to state boundaries. A more centralized management system of the federal land management agencies is better equipped to achieve large scale, cross state boundary, management objectives. The Klamath National Forest and the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest are both examples of USFS National Forests that cross state boundaries between California and Oregon, and Nevada, respectively.

As you can see, arguments both in favor and against the transfer of federally management lands to state control have their merits. In the next blog, we will look back in time a bit at similar efforts that have occurred in the past to transfer management of public lands to states, as well as efforts that are currently underway by certain states to manage state trust lands. What lessons can we learn from past and current efforts?

Thanks for your interest. Keep it real…. keep it Wild!

Ben Letton