WASHINGTON (Feb. 10, 2014) — As a growing chorus of states in the American West stand up to claim shared or sole sovereignty over federal lands within their borders, lawmakers and agency officials should seriously explore ways to shift more responsibility to local decision-makers, a new paper from the R Street Institute argues.

In the western states, nearly half the land is owned and controlled by the federal government, compared with only 4 percent in the East. About 57 percent of all federal land is in the contiguous western states, with another 35 percent in Alaska.

“The consequences include limited revenue for state coffers, declining recreation access, increased restrictions on commodity production and, in some cases, poor environmental stewardship,” R Street Associate Fellow Holly L. Fretwell writes.

Disputes over how best to manage these hundreds of millions of acres have prompted state efforts in Utah, Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Wyoming to insist the federal government divest its lands and transfer most of them to state jurisdiction.

Fretwell argues that federal-to-state transfers should be studied as one of a host of potential policy options for the federal estate to make better use of local knowledge and better align management incentives. Others she proposes exploring include expanding public-private partnerships, streamlining the National Environmental Policy Act and extending the lands-in-trust concept on federal lands to allow private parties and nonprofit groups the right to bid for use in competitive auction.

“To be sure, there is no one-size-fits-all reform that would be appropriate for all or even most federally owned lands,” Fretwell writes. “Rather, different reforms – ranging from outright privatization to devolution of decision-making authority – may be appropriate in different circumstances.”

The full paper is available for download here:


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