Devolving Federal Lands

The federal government owns 28 percent of the land in the United States, including about half of the land in the 11 westernmost states. Federal agencies are poor land managers in many ways, and the government’s top-down regulations on land use are frustrating to many Westerners, as I discuss in studies here and here.

Much federal land would generate more value if it were owned by the states or the private sector. Economic and environmental needs would be better balanced by local policymakers than by the unaccountable bureaucracies in faraway Washington. Increased federal control over lands does not automatically benefit the environment, as liberals seem to think. Instead, it usually creates disincentives for sound environmental management.

The good news is that the House took a step toward devolving federal lands yesterday, as reported by the Washington Post:

House Republicans on Tuesday changed the way Congress calculates the cost of transferring federal lands to the states and other entities, a move that will make it easier for members of the new Congress to cede federal control of public lands.

Many Republicans, including House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), have been pushing to hand over large areas of federal land to state and local authorities, on the grounds that they will be more responsive to the concerns of local residents.

But…

Rep. Raul Grijalva (Ariz.), the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, sent a letter Tuesday to fellow Democrats urging them to oppose the rules package on the basis of that proposal.

“The House Republican plan to give away America’s public lands for free is outrageous and absurd,” Grijalva said in a statement. “This proposed rule change would make it easier to implement this plan by allowing the Congress to give away every single piece of property we own, for free, and pretend we have lost nothing of any value.”

Rep. Grijalva gets it backwards. Devolving ownership would increase the value of federal lands to Americans, not reduce it. And far from being “outrageous and absurd,” devolution was the general policy of the government for much of the nations’ history. The federal government privatized 792 million acres of land between 1781 and 1940, and it transferred 470 million acres of land to the states.

President-elect Donald Trump and his nominee to head the Department of the Interior apparently lean against devolving federal lands. But I hope they reconsider, as there are 640 million acres of diverse lands we are talking about here. I am not saying that we should privatize Yellowstone. But what about the Bureau of Land Management’s 250 million acres, which is mainly used for cattle grazing?

Today, artificially low federal grazing fees encourage overgrazing. Federal ownership also makes ranchers insecure about their tenures, such that they have an incentive to overstock grazing lands and a disincentive to make long-term investments to improve the lands. Privatizing grazing lands would create more secure property rights, and thus encourage ranchers to improve their stewardship of the lands. That would benefit the economy and the environment.

A good first step for the Trump administration would be to create a detailed inventory of federal land holdings. Then the administration should work with Congress and the states to identify those parcels that might be better managed by state and local governments, nonprofit groups, and businesses.