Column: Federal lands should be closer to public hands
The federal government owns nearly one-third of the land in the United States. With a top-down bureaucratic approach and a bloated portfolio, federal agencies are hopelessly destined to fail at adequately managing this resource. Federal lands are in dire straits, fiscally and environmentally. Changes, such as state ownership, fiduciary trusts and privatization, are needed to bring stewardship of public lands closer to public hands.
More than 630 million acres of our nation’s lands are owned and controlled by the federal government. The vast majority are managed by the U.S. Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture; and the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, all within the Department of the Interior. These agencies have far more assets than they can afford or properly maintain and manage.
Land resource conservation has been a national concern since the tenure of President Theodore Roosevelt. As America entered the 20th century, government policy began focusing on retention and accumulation of land. At the same time, the progressive movement persuaded lawmakers that federal bureaucracies funded by Congress and staffed by a “technical elite” should be solely responsible for decisions about natural resources.
Today, the vision of American resource stewardship is obscured by the central command approach of Washington. Federal land management agencies are awash in red ink, deferring more than $20 billion annually on maintenance of infrastructure like buildings, bridges and dams. The health of forests and grasslands are in decline, and some ecosystems are threatened by poor management strategies of politically motivated managers in faraway offices. Meanwhile, tensions mount between recreational users, natural resource extractors and environmental preservationists.
Despite obvious problems, special interest groups fight to maintain centralized control because it presents advantages to the politically organized and those skilled at distortion and demonization. This dysfunctionality exacerbates budget shortfalls, a culture of scientific stagnation and a polarized lack of objectivity. Policy-makers and special interests can’t even decide whether maintaining existing assets should take priority over accumulating more federal lands.
Under the federal model, Congress appropriates agency funding from tax dollars. Agencies are thus beholden to politicians and special interests. Money is allocated on a use-it or lose-it basis, which encourages wasting of millions of dollars each year. Changes must incorporate funding that is derived from income generated by resource management. Reforms must also bring managers closer to the lands they manage. They must be willing and able to balance conservation with local interests, apply sound scientific principles and foster cooperation of myriad users.
One alternative would be to transfer ownership of some federal lands to state and local governments. Many BLM parcels could benefit from management by in-state agencies, which better understand local uses and concerns. The same can be said for a lot of small parks, refuges and forest tracts where most visitors and beneficiaries are in-state residents. Reasonable user fees can be set with communities and the bottom line in mind.
Another reform would be transferring appropriate lands to fiduciary trust organizations. In these cases, the federal government would maintain ownership. Market trusts would oversee lands with marketable resources and maximize revenue while preserving productive capacity. Nonmarket trusts would manage lands where the goal is preservation of natural environment or historic structures and artifacts. Trusts are run by elected boards and funded primarily by user fees. Beneficiaries could be public schools, universities or hospitals. A percentage of trust revenues could also be dedicated to separate funds to protect biodiversity and endangered species.
Privatization is a reasonable alternative to consider for some parcels. One option would be to sell some parks and refuges to conservation land trusts, which are private nonprofit groups. Examples are the Nature Conservancy or Ducks Unlimited, which charge efficient fees for use of the lands. There are also various monuments and historic sites that can be transferred to private groups. This is the case with George Washington’s historic Mount Vernon estate in Virginia.
Lands that truly encompass national benefits like major parks and monuments as well as large energy reserves should remain under federal management. But in most other cases, effective land and resource management could be better accomplished by states, fiduciary trusts and even private owners.
The framers of the Constitution purposely limited federal government authority. They also understood that people care most about the environment in which they live. Public lands belong closer to the people’s hands.
James D. Kellogg is an engineering consultant and the author of “Radical Action: A Colt Kelley Thriller.” Look for the novel on amazon.com and visit JamesDKellogg.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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