Bush Should Try Pilot Projects

February 23, 2001

What should Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman do to improve public land management without provoking controversy and polarization? The agencies in Norton's department, plus the Forest Service (which is in the Department of Agriculture), together manage well over a quarter of the nation's land. The one point about these lands on which almost everyone agrees is that the federal land management system has failed.

The federal system:

The people who developed this model a century ago assumed that professional land managers would automatically make the right decisions about the land. Today, we know that federal land managers are torn between loyalties to the resources they manage, the people who use them, the congressional leaders who fund them, and the agencies themselves. In this situation, gridlock is sometimes the best result, since anything else can result in environmental devastation at taxpayers' expense.

This isn't the only way to manage public lands. States use very different models. Many state wildlife agencies are non-profit organizations, funded exclusively out of their license fees and other receipts. Many state forest agencies are trusts, earning profits for schools and other beneficiaries. Most states substitute citizen boards or commissions for the multi-layered federal bureaucracies. The results are often better both for the environment and for taxpayers.

The question for Norton and Veneman is: How do you reform giant federal agencies without simply making them more centralized than before? The Clinton administration flunked this problem, as most federal land agencies today are far more top heavy than eight years ago.

The best answer to this question has come from several different groups that recently and more-or-less independently developed similar proposals. These groups urge that alternative models be tested as pilot projects on selected national forests, national parks, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) districts, and other federal land units.

Most of these groups included a balanced combination of commodity interests, environmentalists, policy analysts, and agency officials:

While most agree that the federal land model does not work, the variety of the pilot proposals reflects the lack of agreement on what should be done instead:

  1. Many national forests and parks already collect more user fees than they spend, so some pilots propose to fund land managers out of a share of the receipts they produce. These pilots would receive seed money from Congress but no further appropriations.
  2. Other pilots propose to replace the multi-level bureaucracy with a board of directors. The boards might be appointed, collaboratively chosen, or even elected by a "friends of the forest/park" group. Funding would continue to come from appropriations.
  3. The most intriguing pilots propose that federal lands be managed as a legal trust obligated to produce a profit for some beneficiary, such as a local biodiversity preservation program.

To find out for certain what works and what doesn't, most proposals would test pilots for five years. None would weaken any environmental laws. More than 1,000 national forests, parks,and other federal land units provide are plenty of opportunities to test pilots in many different situations.

For pilots to happen, they need the support of local congressional delegations, local agency managers, and a variety of interest groups. Norton and Veneman should seek this support by encouraging land managers and interest groups to step forward with project proposals. They should then ask Congress to grant broad authority to experiment with pilot projects or at least to go along if projects bend bureaucratic rules.

In contrast with the heavy-handed, top-down reforms attempted by many administrations, pilot projects can reform agencies from the bottom up. This will improve public land conservation while adhering to traditional American principles of decentralization and innovation.

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