The Great Public Land Debate

The Importance of Public Land for Recreation and Conservation

 By: Matt Wymer

I grew up in a community that touted self-reliance, hard work and independence. Large bureaucracy was a burdensome beast that killed businesses and destroyed family’s livelihoods (think of the spotted owl impact on the PNW in the 90s). As such my political views lean toward smaller governments with local control. In others words, more individual choice vs. a federal mandate. Even just a few years ago, this mindset had me believing the solution to our public land challenges was local, or state, ownership. However, this mindset has evolved. As frustrated as we are with Federal oversight, as much as we demand local control, the issue is HIGHLY complex. Why? Simply because politics are involved. In most cases local governments have over promised and over reached and struggle to maintain financial stability. As such elected officials are in a tough spot. In many cases, selling assets is an easy solution. The ramification is that public land is all too often the casualty. This is a casualty we can not afford, as public land is one of America’s greatest national treasures. To understand that better, let’s look at the history of public lands.  In the below quote, Keep It Public (a Non-Profit conservation organization) refers to it as our heritage. “Federal land has been around longer than many of the states in which it appears. As our young country expanded in the 19th century, it acquired 1.8 billion acres of public domain land. To encourage western settlement, the federal government aggressively pursued land disposal policies, divesting over 1.2 billion acres of this land.... Due to the rough terrain in the West, some of the available land went unclaimed. As the states sought annexation, they signed the Enabling Acts (see figure below), in which they unequivocally disclaimed all right and title to the unappropriated land. This kept the federal government responsible for management of such land, and allowed the states to avoid financial responsibility for these areas. With one-third of the original land remaining, federal policy shifted from disposal to retention in the 20th century.” Most people understand that Federal ownership and oversights brings multiple problems. Some of the largest Western news stories of the last few years have been over this very issue. Despite this frustration, the battle must be over access and management and the debate must focus on local impacts and concerns; instead of the risk of a mass sale of our greatest treasure. Taking a step back, the long-term impact of public land sales has an unintended economic impact. While shoring up short term budgets, it fails to see the big picture. Once again let us refer to the data from Keep It Public. It has been condensed below; to see the data in it's entirety click the link below for the complete original text. As previously mentioned, States are subject to tighter budgets than the federal government. In some ways, that’s a good thing. In others, it presents a problem. For federal public land, states have the advantage of not bearing fiscal responsibility for management. ..The federal government foots the bill for management including maintenance, access procedures, grazing administration, and wildfire response. In addition to paying for management, the federal government gives each state what are known as Payments in Lieu of Taxes, or “PILTS.” Essentially, because public land generates tax revenue, the federal government gives each state tens of millions of dollars annually.   Unsurprisingly, the economic arithmetic of public land in the west supports keeping public land under federal management. Via the states’ own fiscal analyses, a land-transfer would skyrocket state expenditures, generating large deficits and debt that would yield one of three miserable outcomes:  In the “best-of-the-worst” case, state deficits grow considerably and tax hikes are levied on residents to slow expanding debt, so that the status quo of broad public land access can be maintained. Given politicians’ constant pursuit of reelection, this seems unlikely.   The alternatives, however, are even worse. 
  • States could attempt to overcome the new expenses by managing previously public land with an eye toward short-term-profit, invariably leading to long-term-loss. The states would gut the mixed-model that the federal government currently employs, which allows for recreation access, cheap extraction leases, and low grazing fees. The lands would be viewed strictly as a taxable-revenue generator, and the extractive industry would become the primary actor on most land.
    • While taxable-revenue is a good thing, a significant increase in extraction with an eye toward maximizing short-term profit would mean a long-term revenue loss due to land degradation and negative impacts to the $646 billion outdoor recreation industry, the loss of PILTS, and harm to ranching communities. 
  • States offset their new expenses by selling public land outright, throwing away our greatest national treasure for the sake of balancing budgets that wouldn’t need balancing if it weren’t for a land-transfer. 
 Simply put, state-level budgets do not allow for the existence of the current level of public land and access, nor a mixed-model that allows for recreation, ranching and industry to co-exist. In other words, the federal government has the financial leeway to manage land with an eye toward public access and long-term dividends – something that the states simply can’t match. They just need to do it better! It is hard for my small government mindset to accept that public lands are one of a few exceptions to the small government philosophy. In order for this treasure to endure, elected officials need to have meaningful conversations about management, access rights, and policy updates. Conversations that take into consideration local impacts, while planning for generations to come. The challenge to manage access and conservation for the nation, while understanding the impact to local residents and working WITH them to find win win solutions, is one we must embrace. It is this author's opinion that the great public land debate, should be on management, not transfer of ownership. Let's ensure that the national treasure of public lands stands the test of time. NOTE: Much of this material came from Keep It Public, an organization fighting hard to keep public land public.  All words in ITALIC are blatantly copied and I am giving THEM credit here. Please check out their website and educate yourself on this issue.

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published