The United States might indeed be one nation, indivisible, but there are huge differences between its eastern and western halves when it comes to federal lands. In the West, nearly half the land is owned and controlled by the federal government, compared with only 4 percent in the East. That difference affects the ability of western states to determine their own destiny.
In March 2012, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed H.B. 148, legislation that insists the federal government divest its lands in the state, transferring most of them to state jurisdiction. Utah is not alone in the desire to bring federal acreage under local control. At least four other western states (Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Wyoming) have passed similar legislation and still more are considering similar bills.
Proponents of the measure argue that this sort of decentralization would place control in the hands of those with the most to gain or lose from effective land stewardship. They also point to enabling legislation passed by Congress when each of these states joined the union, noting that they typically have included clauses providing that the federal government would extinguish its title to any unappropriated lands.
Indeed, what were once public lands in eastern states largely have been transferred to the private sector, where they generate revenues for those states. Conversely, in the West, hundreds of millions of acres of federal land remain. The consequences include limited revenue for state coffers, declining recreation access, increased restrictions on commodity production and, in some cases, poor environmental stewardship.
These pieces of state legislation undoubtedly will face constitutional challenges, but regardless of their legal standing, if federal land management was to be reassigned, who would mind the estate? What rules would reign? What sort of arrangements would best steward America’s lands to ensure they are managed to bring recreational and environmental value, while also providing the revenues and resources needed for a productive society?
This paper provides a glimpse of some of the institutional and management problems that face America’s public lands and suggests reforms that policy-makers should consider to improve management of the federal estate.