Tell the typical American that the federal government controls 640 million acres of land (close to 28 percent of the nation’s total area), and you’re likely to get a blank stare. The numbers are too large to contemplate, and for the most part, federal land is concentrated away from highly populated areas.

Federal ownership in the eastern half of the country is relatively limited, but in the westernmost 12 states, federal holdings are vast, ranging from 29.9 percent of Montana to a whopping 84.5 percent of Nevada. Yet despite what East Coast elites may believe, federal land ownership has major implications for all Americans.

These federal lands hold a large amount of untapped potential resources that could be developed to provide boosts both to our energy sector and to other parts of the economy. But the permitting process to extract these resources is long and onerous, sometimes taking years before permission is granted. In 2011, the Bureau of Land Management reported that the average application took 307 days.

Given this backdrop, who could blame our extractive industries for seeking to develop resources elsewhere? This unfortunate bureaucratic quagmire results in hits to the American economy, both in terms of lost production and higher fuel prices. It furthers our dependence on foreign energy sources and exacerbates unemployment in areas that could greatly use a boost.

Recent increases in domestic oil production, along with strong foreign output, have resulted in a dramatic dip in fuel prices, with average per-gallon gas prices currently $1.11 lower than in February of last year and diesel prices a striking $1.14 less per gallon. This drop could put an extra $300 billion in the pockets of consumers in desperate need of a boost.

Additionally, though federal subsidies for so-called “green energy” development should not be encouraged, solar power has become a more competitive energy source in recent years. Environmentalists at odds with oil and gas production should bemoan the regulatory barriers to exploring solar investment in these sun-rich states.

Beyond providing a boost for consumers seeking cheaper energy, developing these lands would provide much needed jobs. Of these 12 western states, seven rank above the median in unemployment rates. In Nevada, where federal control is greatest, unemployment is fifth-highest in the nation. California, where the feds control 45.3 percent of the land, boasts the second-highest unemployment rate in the nation. Energy development creates vital domestic jobs, and Americans who otherwise would be productive workers shouldn’t have to sit on the sidelines while their government dawdles over whether or not to allow them to use their skills.

Finally, every taxpayer should be outraged at the appalling inefficiency that is the permitting process. Federal agencies should be accountable to the taxpayer, yet the Bureau of Land Management seems to feel no pressure to streamline their processes to allow faster review and approval.

The answer to this problem is to devolve the permitting process back to the states. Today, Rep. Diane Black, along with 21 cosponsors, re-introduced the Federal Land Freedom Act, and companion legislation will be filed in the Senate soon. As opposed to the federal morass, states typically review an application within days or weeks. The Federal Land Freedom Act still requires states to satisfy all applicable laws related to developing the land, and it exempts lands such as the National Park System and Indian lands from this development, ensuring our most important lands are still protected for future generations.

Conserving America’s most important lands is an admirable goal, but at what point should the line be drawn? The tradeoffs between conservation and economic development are real, and states, which are most in touch with their land resources, should be the ones to make the tough calls. Perhaps the recent economic boon from lower energy prices will be the wake-up call Congress need to support this important effort.

Featured Publications