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Federal Lands, Public Dilemma

On November 21, 2015

By Karim Elsayed, Federalism Fellow | Federalism In Action

Imagine owning a house, and the town mayor controls two rooms simply because he is the mayor and believes he can put them to better use than you can. Not a very pleasant thought, right?

This situation is not so different from the ongoing battle between states and the federal government over federally controlled public lands. When asked about how the federal government controls western land, Utah Representative Ken Ivory stated,  “For decades now, Washington has been progressively commandeering from local control, matters of land access, land use, and land ownership, particularly, though not exclusively, throughout the western states. States, counties, municipalities, businesses and individuals have been reeling to defend against the metastasizing maze of federal policies, regulations and edicts”. The federal government controls over 50 percent of public lands, primarily in the western United States, and only 5 percent east of the United States. This poses a rather unsettling question about Washington’s unwarranted breach of states’ rights.

There are four federal land management agencies that control large swathes of land in the west: the Bureau Land Management (248 million acres of land), the National Park Service (80 million acres), the Forest Service (193 million acres), and the Fish and Wildlife Service (89 million acres) (2). 

While these agencies all control large amounts of land, what makes it more shocking is that these lands are composed of lands from only 11 western states. Many of these states lack the necessary funds to cover expenses for education, and public services. However, vast deposits of natural resources lie within these states on federally controlled lands that remain restricted. In attempting to manage these valuable resources, the federal government actually loses money. According to PERC (Property and Environmental Research Center), a nonprofit think tank based in Montana which seeks solutions to environmental problems, “The Federal government loses money managing valuable natural resources on federal lands while states generate significant financial returns from state trust lands”. On average, the federal government gains approximately 73 cents for every dollar spent managing these lands. Overall, the federal mismanagement of lands, costs American citizens nearly $2 billion in annual taxes.

StateTrustLandsState Trust Lands comprise land owned by states that the federal government gave in the form of land grants, to generate revenue for states during statehood. Revenue comes from many sources such as timber harvesting, grazing, mineral extraction, commercial development and conservation. As PERC stated, “The states examined in this study earn an average $14.51 for every dollar spent on state trust land management. The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management generate only 73 cents in return for every dollar spent on federal land management.”. As a result of STL, states earned notably more money for every dollar spent than the federal government has. The states that were referenced by researchers are Montana, Idaho, New Mexico, and Arizona.

The fact that the federal government continues to control public lands undermines the principles of federalism. Many western states suffer from crippling economies due to restriction of access to natural resources. The hard working taxpayers of America are subjugated to excessive tax increases to subsidize western states and alleviate their current economic state. This could be avoided if states had complete control and management over their own lands. Compulsion, a recurring theme in Washington, often goes hand in hand with the many federally mandated agencies and programs that continue to choke and suffocate liberty.

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About the author: Karim Elsayed is a millennial, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, a federalism fellow with Federalism In Action, and a recent graduate of Southern Vermont College with a Bachelor’s degree in history and political science. He is a staunch supporter of a small limited government, free market principles, traditional values, and fiscal conservatism. In his free time, he ponders surrealism and the abstract concept of thought, likes to be outdoors, and catch up on his reading on economic theories and Middle Eastern history.

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