The Antiplanner was in Washington, DC on Tuesday to testify before the Federal Land Action Group, an unofficial Congressional committee made up of representatives from western states who support more local control of federal lands. Several of the committee members expressed the opinion that federal land would be better managed by the states because the easterners who made up a majority of Congress didn’t understand the West.
While I believe the federal lands could be better managed, I had to throw cold water on some of their ideas. The real debate, I said, wasn’t between easterners and westerners. It was between urbanites who have little connection with agriculture, forestry, and mining, and ruralites whose jobs depended on those sectors of the economy. Ninety percent of residents of the West live in urban areas that occupy just one percent of the land, and–unlike forty or so years ago–few if those urbanites have jobs that directly depend in mining, logging, or farming.
The population of the most rural state in the West, Montana, is 55 percent urban; Wyoming and Alaska are 65 percent; Idaho and New Mexico from 70 to 80 percent; and all the others are more than 80 percent urban. Many people in these urban areas moved to or stay in the West because they love the easy access to recreation on federal lands, and polls show that most of them support continued federal ownership of these lands. Can anyone really think that ranchers and other rural interests are going to get more sympathy from the West’s urbanites than those from the East?
Instead of debating about who should own the land, I said, Congress should reform the existing public land agencies. The first reform would be to allow the agencies to charge fair market value for recreation and other uses and then to fund the agencies exclusively out of a share of those fees, not tax dollars. This would make agencies responsive to user demands, not political whims.
As I pointed out in an op ed yesterday, two of the biggest beneficiaries of federal land recreation fees would be private landowners, who could then charge fees for recreation that the federal government is currently giving away, and recreationists themselves, who would see many more opportunities for recreation if public managers and private owners had incentives to produce those opportunities. If private ranchers could charge market-rate fees for hunting and wildlife viewing, for example, they might be more willing to promote elk and live with wolves, which in turn would make their use of public lands more acceptable to the urban public.
One representative asked if I thought user fees could cover fire suppression costs as well as other costs. This was a pertinent question because another witness had suggested that, since fire problems on federal lands had resulted from federal mismanagement, if the federal government spun off those lands to the states or other entities, the feds should continue to fund fire suppression costs.
To the contrary, I said, fire suppression today is expensive because Congress has given the Forest Service a blank check. There is no need for it to cost that much. The claim that past mismanagement has so altered federal forests that they are more vulnerable to fire than state and private forests is a myth the Forest Service relies on to get Congress to continue the blank check. In fact, the vast majority of federal forests are no more fire prone today than they were 50 or 100 years ago.
I pointed out that private landowners provide much of the funding for the state fire protection districts that adequately handle fires on state and private lands, and that some BLM lands are also a part of those districts, paying their fair share. There’s no reason why the Forest Service and other federal agencies couldn’t join those districts as well.
The second reform would be to turn federal lands into fiduciary trusts. Another witness had testified that state trust lands were often better managed than federal lands, but I pointed out that most state lands are not; what makes the state trust lands better off is that they are treated as fiduciary trusts. That means they have trustees who are generally obligated to earn a profit for some beneficiary while preserving the productivity of the trust assets. The state trusts are mostly managed to benefit schools, but federal trusts could benefit endangered species, counties, or the federal Treasury.
Congress is not ready to reform federal lands just yet. But at some point–probably sooner rather than later–Congress will be confronted by the fact that it can’t borrow money to fund Social Security, Medicare, the military, and domestic programs forever. When that happens, someone is bound to realize that the government owns a lot of land that is not being productively managed. Those who care about these lands need to find ways to make those lands pay their way before someone else decides to raid them to replenish the Treasury.