This Land is Your Land; This Land is My Land

Why do the feds spend so much to make our Western wilderness theirs?

The federal government owns nearly 30 percent of all the land in the country. In the West, those numbers soar even higher. The federal government controls more than 84 percent of the land in Nevada, more than 50 percent of the land in Alaska, Utah, Oregon and Idaho, and more than 40 percent of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming.

It’s safe to say that many of these states are getting tired of the feds. Utah recently passed a law authorizing it to seize federal land through eminent domain. The law, while likely unconstitutional, reflects a widely felt sentiment in Western states: Let states control the land within their borders.

The U.S. Forest Service holds more than 156 million acres of land – nearly equivalent to the size of Texas – west of the Mississippi River. It controls 155 national forests and 600 ranger districts. With an ever-growing federal bureaucracy and massive budget deficits, it is time to let states manage this land, taking up to $5 billion a year off the federal books.

It is highly unlikely that the feds would simply give valuable land to the states for free. And deficit-riddled states are in no position to purchase expensive land right now. But a payback period of 30 years (like your standard mortgage) could make deals feasible.

Once in state hands, what would they do with the land? There would be political pressure to keep large portions of it, especially parks and recreation areas, undeveloped. But there are huge portions of land that could be put to better use. The supporters of the Utah law, for example, hope to sell certain parcels for development and apply the proceeds to fund education programs.

Still, even if a state does buy land from the feds, would they simply absorb those areas into their own state park systems – and thus add large new budget items to their own budgets? No, that doesn’t have to be the case.

Private companies already operate the commercial activities – lodges, shops, restaurants and the like – in treasured national parks, including the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone. Similarly, the Forest Service makes extensive use of concessionaires to operate and maintain complete parks and campgrounds better and cheaper than government could.

States could use this model to take over parks – without absorbing them into the state budget. One Forest Service contractor in Arizona recently offered to take over six state parks that were going to be closed owing to budget cuts. The company would collect the same visitor fees the state charges today while taking the operations and maintenance costs off the state’s books entirely. Not only that, but the company would also pay the state an annual “rent” based on a percentage of the fees collected, turning parks into a state revenue generator instead of a loss leader. The state would still own the land, and the company would be subject to strict state controls on operating rules, fee-setting and development restrictions.

The devolution of Forest Service land could be implemented over time, starting with pilot programs in select Western states, like Utah or Nevada, to test the model and refine best practices. Once perfected, the process could be extended throughout the Forest Service system, and then expanded throughout the Bureau of Land Management system, which owns roughly the same amount of Western land and costs taxpayers another $1.1 billion a year.

All sides of the political spectrum should be able to agree that decisions about how to most wisely use land are best made at the local or state level, by officials with accountability to those residents. And since the federal deficit could top $1.5 trillion this fiscal year, now more than ever it doesn’t make sense for the federal government to be the biggest landowner in the West.

Leonard Gilroy is the director of government reform at Reason Foundation and a certified urban planner. This column first appeared in the Washington Times.