It should come as no surprise that federal land management is controversial. After all, federal lands make up 68% of Alaska, 44% of California, 62% of Idaho, 83% of Nevada, and 64% of Utah. Any management that pervasive across the landscape is going to draw both attention and criticism. And with the cost of purchasing private land skyrocketing in many places in the West, it is no wonder that federal ownership and management has become a topic of discussion beyond the normal circles of environmentalists, ranchers, loggers, and miners. Moreover, the debate itself has shifted. What was once a debate over user fees and "who is responsible for what" is increasingly talked about in terms of 'privatization': selling off public lands.
Economists are often drawn into this game, and win favor for themselves as champions of one side or another by framing issues narrowly around the concept of 'efficiency in administration' (Lehmann 1995, Wilkinson 1992). In this short note we will attempt to dig a bit deeper into the controversy, and will refrain from conjuring up yet another set of numbers. One particularly thorny issue is whether or not the government ought to own any lands aside from, say, military bases, municipal parks and national parks. And even some national parks are not held apart from this contentious debate. This issue recurrently surfaces in political discussions, and this year has been punctuated by legislation introduced to: (1) transfer to the states (with options to privitize) most of the National Park Service lands, all of the Bureau of Land Management lands, and all of the US Forest Service lands; (2) privatize many ski resort lands that are now held in federal ownerships; and (3) reaffirm and strengthen private rights to grazing, mining, etc. on federal lands.
Even if we could skirt the contentious issue of "whether or not government ownership", we would find ourselves squarely in the middle of the debate over how much and what kinds of land the government ought to administer and to what ends the government ought to work toward. And, of course, this leaves the door ajar to debate just who in government ought to do the work: municipal, county, state, or federal government?
To gain further perspective on our current plight, couple the loss of faith in government with new-found awareness that 250 million people in the United States is a substantial presence, and one that some suggest will likely double to 500 million in 30 years or less, and to 1 billion 30 years later. When the Western frontier was declared closed in the late 1800s, by contrast, the West was still sparsely populated. At the turn of the century there were only a few thousand people in southern California. Now there are in the neighborhood of 14 million in the Los Angeles area alone. Just after World War II there were 16 million people living in the Western US; now there are over 50 million and growth rates are nothing short of astounding in many places. In many places in the West people are being compressed into ever-tighter spaces, and feel compelled to fight back--blaming whoever and whatever they can for their deep-felt loss of privacy and the sense of freedom that comes from living on the frontier. In earlier times they could have picked up and left for "greener pastures" elsewhere. Now they will have to find means to deal with the knotty problem of resolving issues in-place.
What are we to do, if anything, to try to maintain the functions of the biosphere that cleanse both air and water throughout the world? Many of those functions are performed by our forests, rangelands, marshlands, and estuaries. Also, what value do we find in the presence of other species with whom we share the Earth? We commonly recognize and mourn the loss of each species that vanishes from the planet (at least those few that we hear about--or even know about) but we seem to forget that these 'other' species do not recognize our so-called property rights and often fall victim to human endeavors.
Instead of discussing these primary questions first, and focusing attention on how best to use money as a second-order consideration, we too often tend to approach the problem the other-way-around. So we see statements suggesting that if the states took possession of, say, Bureau of Land Management lands "in the long run, Western states would very likely be better off and the lands more efficiently managed and more beneficially used" (Nelson 1994, p.7). The foregoing statement comes from Robert Nelson in an essay titled "Transferring Federal Lands in the West to the States: How would it work?". Nelson is an 18 year veteran of the Department of Interior's policy analysis unit, and is now a professor of public affairs at the University of Maryland. Nelson's short essay is characteristic of much that we see from those promoting the transfer and/or sale of federal lands.
In "Transferring Federal Lands...", Nelson lays out the revenues and costs of Bureau of Land Management federal administration, including the fact that, with exceptions in New Mexico and Wyoming, in all Western states outlays by the Federal Government for BLM management exceed the revenues received. Then he suggests (as if it goes without saying) that the states "would no doubt act to reduce the costs of the bloated BLM bureaucracy." He also describes the management options that the states would (or could) try: manage some or all land at the state level, transfer land to local governments, create public corporations, contract with nonprofit groups to manage lands, offer long term leases or 'privatize' some lands outright. A lynchpin argument seems to be that "state control would allow for much greater innovation and experimentation." It is as if the states are by nature much less bureaucratic than the federal government; that they are much more open to new ideas and less set in their ways. Maybe they are. But maybe they are not.
Arguments that Nelson and others bring to the table are only germane when placed in context. Absent context how could we get to the heart of this or any other issue? What is at issue, it seems, is: Who are we as a people? What is our heritage? What heritage are we to leave to those who follow in our footsteps? Some of our collective desire to leave a proud heritage is wrapped up in the noble goals embodied in federal land and resource law. What are we to do, for example, about habitat needs for species that have grown up and flourished in Western wildlands? What about the access to relatively undeveloped public lands (also strictly undeveloped lands in primitive areas and wilderness areas) for recreation and spiritual renewal that so many take for granted? Would this access be retained in proposals for changing management? If so, where and at what cost to the user? What about the 'attraction value' that accrues to lands adjacent or in close proximity to federal set-asides from development? Are Sun Valley, ID, Jackson Hole, WY, Whitefish, MT, Telluride, Aspen, Vail, CO, Taos, NM, Moab, UT valuable in their own right as isolated communities filled with rather rich inhabitants? Or are the values somehow generated from the intertwining of private and public lands and the unspoken trust that the public lands are to remain intact?
To be fair, Nelson does address these issues with a broad brush in his article and in much more detail in his recent book Public Lands and Private Rights. Incidentally, Public Lands and Private Rights is an excellent source-refenence for backgound on set-up and administration of federal land and resource management agencies, whether or not one is inclinded to agree with Nelson's prescriptive remedys. Also it is not clear that Nelson is too firmly tied to his prescriptions for transferring federal lands to the states. In a recent article titled "Beyond the Progressive Paradigm" Nelson lays out ideas for decentralizing national forest management without transferring the lands outright (Nelson 1995(b)). Still, to gain a perspective of Nelson's ideas on state management compared to federal management consider his summary in "Transferring Federal Lands....":
So the fiscal considerations of a transfer are not of such a magnitude that they would be the single determining factor. The more important consideration would be the confidence that Westerners have in their own state governments and other political institutions to manage the land.
But there is also fear of the unknown. How would such a basic change alter land tenure arrangements?
Terms of grazing permits, mining exploration, hunting and fishing access, and many other matters have been worked out over many years with various federal agencies. Turning all these responsibilities over to state agencies would create great uncertainties among historic user of the public lands.
But if the state took possession of BLM lands, they would, in fact, have many options. They could manage some or all land at the state level, transfer land to local governments, create public corporations, contract with nonprofit groups to manage lands, offer long term leases or privatize some lands outright.
.... Now is the time for an informed national debate of the merits of ending federal ownership of such vast areas of the Western states (Nelson 1994, p.7).
Hirt, Paul W. 1994. A Consipracy of Optimism: Management of the National Forests since World War Two. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.
Howard, Phillip K. 1994. The Death of Common Sense: How Law Is Suffocating America. Random House, New York.
Kemmis, Daniel. 1990. Community and the Politics of Place. University of Oklahoma Press, Normann.
Lehmann, Scott. 1995. Privatizing Public Lands. Oxford University Press, New York.
Nelson, Robert H. 1995. Public Lands and Private Rights: The Failure of Scientific Management. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland.
Nelson, Robert H. 1995. Beyond the Progressive Paradigm. Inner Voice 7(5):12-13. Association of Forest Service Employees For Environmental Ethics, Eugene, Oregon.
Nelson, Robert H. 1994. Transferring Federal Lands in the West to the States: How would it work? Points West Chronicle, Winter 1994-95, pp 6-7. Center for the New West, Denver, Colorado.
Toffler, Alvin and Hiedi Toffler. 1995. Creating a New Civilization. Turner Publishing Co., Atlanta, Georgia.
Wilkinson, Charles F. 1992. Crossing the Next Merridian: Land, Water, and the Future of the West. Island Press, Washington, D.C.