May 17, 1999 | Backgrounder on Energy and Environment
Conserving America's land resources has been a federal concern since President Theodore Roosevelt made it a national priority more than 100 years ago. The objective was not just to conserve and protect the environment, but also to enhance the quality of life for Americans and improve the use of natural resources. Today, however, federal land management policy has strayed far from President Roosevelt's vision. Instead, Washington has implemented a command-and-control approach that wastes valuable financial resources and at times is environmentally harmful.
The federal government now owns one-third of the land in the United States.2 Four federal agencies--the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and National Park Service--are tasked with managing most of this land3 with combined annual budgets of $8.1 billion for fiscal year (FY) 1999. But as recent reports by the federal government's own watchdogs point out, these agencies are not doing a good job. For example:
The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) reported that the cost of eliminating the agencies' reported backlog of maintenance problems on public land exceeds $12 billion.4
The Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Agriculture found serious accounting and financial reporting deficiencies in the Forest Service, including "pervasive errors" in data supporting "land, buildings, equipment, accounts receivable, and accounts payable."5
A Congressional Research Service analyst found that a 1996 GAO study did not use a General Services Administration analysis of the amount of land each agency managed because of discrepancies between the GSA's numbers and those reported by the other four agencies.6
The Congressional Budget Office observed in April 1999 that
in many instances, the National Park Service, the Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management find it difficult to maintain and finance operations on their existing land holdings.... [E]nvironmental objectives such as habitat protection and access to recreation might be best met by improving management in currently held areas, rather than providing minimal management over a larger domain.7
Such internal management problems, coupled with federal environmental regulations, undermine the efforts of federal land managers to care for public land under their oversight. Yet both President Bill Clinton and Congress have proposed establishing trust funds to purchase even more federal land which then would fall under these agencies' control.
As far back as 1818, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Bevans that a state's right to control property within its borders was an essential part of its sovereignty. Despite this precedent, however, these new proposals would override both state sovereignty and private property rights.
President Clinton's Land Legacy Initiative would establish a $1.3 billion trust fund for new federal and state land acquisitions, which includes $450 million for federal land acquisition and $580 million for state and local government land acquisitions.8 This amounts to an increase of 125 percent over the federal funds available in the 1999 budget.9
The Conservation and Reinvestment Act of 1999 (H.R. 701) would direct about $900 million to the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF)--$378 million for federal land acquisitions, $378 million for state land acquisitions, and $144 million for local governments' Urban Parks and Recreation Recovery programs. A companion bill (S. 25) has been introduced in the Senate. Unlike the Land Legacy Initiative, the congressional legislation would transform the LWCF into a "dedicated fund" that, by design, would allow federal agencies to bypass the scrutiny of the annual appropriations process and congressional oversight.
As the Framers of the Constitution understood, people care most about the environment in which they live, and the level of government closest to the people is the most effective at implementing policies that promote conservation of land while respecting property rights. These current proposals, however, would enhance the federal government's appetite foræand its ability to own and manageæeven more of the nation's lands, reducing even further the amount of private property owned by individual Americans. Thus, they run counter to America's constitutional legacy.
Today, the federal government cannot account fully for the quantity and condition of the land it owns. Congress's first step should be to initiate a thorough investigation of the federal government's current land holdings and land management activities. In addition, a new federal land management policy should be developed that is based on the core American principles of conservation, federalism, and property rights.
To that end, Congress should ensure that the federal government manages only public land possessing unique historic, recreational, or biological qualities. Privatizing land that should not be under government control would both ease the financial burden that inappropriate federal holdings inflict on taxpayers and the U.S. Treasury and encourage local interest and investment in conserving America's land resources.
Congress also should consider devolving to the states ownership of land that does not meet the criteria for federal ownership and is not suitable for privatization. State and local governments generally have managed public land efficiently and with greater responsiveness to local needs and interests. If their money had to pass first through Washington's land management bureaucracies, however, it is not certain that this would continue.
The implementation of policies that allow the federal government to own only land of truly national interest would accomplish two essential goals: It would enable federal land managers to focus their efforts and resources on protecting America's greatest national treasures, and it would ensure the long-term conservation of America's natural resources for future generations.
Although the goal of preserving land for posterity is noble, the true impact of current federal land management policy should not be lost behind a cloud of good intentions. In 1996, the General Accounting Office reported that the federal government owned a staggering 650 million acres, or one-third of the land in the United States.10 The Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service manage about 95 percent of this land11 (approximately 618 million acres, or about 7,500 acres per employee).12 As of September 1994, these agencies also had obtained rights-of-use to over 3 million acres on nonfederal land through leases, agreements, permits, and easements.13
The Clinton Administration and several Members of Congress hope to enable the federal government to purchase even more land, which would then be placed under the management of these agencies. This effort by the federal government is not new:
Between 1964 and 1993, the number of acres managed by the four federal agencies increased in 46 states and decreased only in Alaska, Idaho, New Mexico, and Utah.14
At the end of FY 1993, the four federal agencies managed over 50 percent of the land in five states and over 25 percent of the land in an additional seven states.15
Excluding two large land transfers in Alaska, the total amount of land managed by the four federal land management agencies between 1964 through 1993 increased by about 34 million acres.16
The four agencies acquired control of about 203,000 acres in FY 1994.17
In certain Western states and localities, the federal government owns the vast majority of land. For example, it owns more than 86 percent of the land in Nevada, 67.9 percent in Utah, 67 percent in Alaska, and 65.2 percent in Idaho.18
The Department of the Interior's budget for FY 2000 includes $295 million in land acquisition funds for 610,000 new acres.19
California is expected to lose over 445,000 acres to the federal government in FY 2000.20
With few exceptions, the amount of land managed by the four federal land management agencies has increased, primarily through the expansion of existing national forests, wildlife refuges, and parks or through the creation of new ones. The proposals of the President and Congress would enable the federal government to spend up to $1.3 billion annually for federal and state land acquisitions, even though the federal land management agencies lack accountability and their track record can be characterized as poor.
In an April 1999 report, the Congressional Budget Office proposed placing a ten-year moratorium on future appropriations for land acquisitions by land management agencies.21 Proponents of this option argue that these agencies should improve their stewardship of the land they already manage before taking on additional management responsibilities.
To facilitate their oversight of the preservation and protection of federal public lands, Members of Congress reasonably would expect the land management agencies to provide such information as the total amount of land managed, where it is located, the particular needs of each tract, and how these needs are reflected in agency performance goals, funding requests, programming, and staffing. In addition, under the Government Performance and Results Act, Congress expects agencies to match their performance goals with specific activities and to be held accountable for their results. The inability of federal land management agencies to provide Congress or the American public with an accurate accounting of the public lands under their control, in addition to their large backlog of maintenance problems, clearly indicates that these agencies are not performing as they should be.
In a recent memorandum, a specialist in natural resources policy at the Congressional Research Service noted that there were serious discrepancies between the acreage reported by each federal land management agency and General Services Administration (GSA) data.22 Problems with the reliability of the data ranged from decimal points entered in the wrong place to significant discrepancies, such as a variance of 2,978,000 acres in Minnesota; 1,012,000 acres in Michigan; and 1,643,000 acres in Wisconsin for Fish and Wildlife Services alone.23
This lack of consensus between government agencies on how much land each agency manages indicates the seriousness of their administrative problems. It also raises serious doubts about whether the federal government is capable of adequately managing the public lands it currently owns.
According to the GAO, the cost of eliminating the backlog of maintenance problems on public lands under federal control exceeds $12 billion.24 The Park Service, for example, reported in 1998 that the maintenance backlog on its facilities had more than tripled over the previous ten years--from $1.9 billion in 1987 to $6.1 billion in 1997.25 The Forest Service cited a maintenance backlog of between $7.3 billion and $8.3 billion;26 and in February 1999, the Inspector General's Office of the Department of the Interior cited a Fish and Wildlife Service maintenance backlog of $717 million.27 Without accountability to the taxpayer, these agencies have little incentive to manage public lands efficiently. Consequently, the backlog of maintenance problems will continue to grow.
The purpose of the Government Performance and Results Act is to improve the confidence of Americans in the ability of the federal government to carry out agency missions reliably and responsibly, and to systematically hold federal agencies accountable for linking performance goals with agency plans.28 Yet the GAO often finds that the annual performance plans of the four major federal land management agencies contain ambiguous goals that often are not linked to program missions and strategies. The Bureau of Land Management's FY 1999 performance plan, for example, specifies that a long-term goal will be to "establish baselines for environmental education efforts and set goals for increasing programs for adults and school children."29 Even worse, most of these plans do not adequately identify agencies' crosscutting activities, strategies, and performance goals, and fail to note whether they are coordinating their efforts within their departments. As the GAO noted recently, "Our work over time has shown that the responsibilities of these agencies have become similar over time."30
The agencies suffer from serious deficiencies in financial reporting as well. For example, according to a January 1999 GAO report, the Inspector General of the United States Department of Agriculture has cited the Forest Service since 1991 for "pervasive errors in the field-level data supporting land, buildings, equipment, accounts receivable, and accounts payable."31 Because the Forest Service was unable to provide basic financial accounting information, the GAO has placed it on a list of "high risk" agencies.32 By streamlining existing programs, agencies could use their funds more effectively to advance programs that promote successful land preservation.
A recent poll found that approximately 70 percent of registered voters believe state and local governments would do a better job of environmental protection than the federal government can do.33 Yet, in almost all cases involving public land, federal agencies impose command-and-control regulations from Washington. The attempts by an inefficient federal bureaucracy to manage 650 million acres around the country have created a land management system that is both economically wasteful and environmentally harmful. Congress should work to decentralize ownership and management of public lands to the level of government, or to the people, affected most directly by the results of management practices.
In most cases, where the public land has no overriding national interest, Congress should consider an arrangement that allows privatization as well as state and local flexibility and experimentation to devise practical ways to manage and protect the land.34 State and private ownership of public land would tie the responsibility for land use policies to those who bear the impact of those policies. Differences in geography, economies, politics, and other factors would be addressed more appropriately. Until management of public land is made simpler and more efficient, America's land resources will continue to suffer.
One way to address the problem of maintenance backlogs is to allow federal land managers to privatize various management functions and charge activity and land use fees to generate the revenue they need for operations and maintenance expenses. The incentives created by activity fee demonstration projects have shown good results.
For example, Congress authorized a demonstration program in 1996 that allowed the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Forest Service to assess new or increased fees for recreational opportunities at up to 400 public sites. Fee collection systems were put in place at 312 sites.35 These agencies have reported that, because of this program, their combined recreational fee revenues doubled from about $93 million in FY 1996 to about $180 million in FY 1998. The Park Service collected 80 percent of the overall revenue, the Forest Service 15 percent, the Bureau of Land Management 3 percent, and the Fish and Wildlife Service about 2 percent.36
The goal of such activity fee programs is to generate hundreds of millions of dollars to the agencies for visitor services, to address maintenance backlogs, and to promote resource conservation. Increases in the fees should cover the costs of recreation facility investments, operations, maintenance, and related services, especially where there is heavy public use.
Just as important as the success of the fee demonstration programs in raising operating funds is the GAO's conclusion that "visitation appears largely unaffected by the new and increased fees."37 Of the 206 sites in the demonstration program in FY 1997, visitation increased at 58 percent, decreased at 41 percent, and remained unchanged at 1 percent.38 By allowing the agencies to retain the fees collected, Congress created a powerful incentive for managers to focus on their needs, their programs, and their costs.
These types of revenue-generating demonstration programs should not be limited to recreational opportunities. Programs should be implemented to allow agencies to obtain fair market value for other uses of the resources on the land, such as timber production and grazing. Such programs would create an incentive for agencies to raise revenue to cover their maintenance needs and help to relieve the burden on the U.S. Treasury to fulfill those needs.
The 650 million acres controlled by the federal government encompass a wealth of forest, grazing land, minerals, wildlife, and recreational amenities with enormous potential for generating revenues for the public good. However, according to a study published by the Political Economy Research Center (PERC),39 the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management lost an average of $290 million in timber production, $66 million in grazing, and $355 million in recreation activities from 1994 through 1996.40 The reason for this loss of revenue, according to this study, was cost inefficiencies. Because these agencies are funded by Congress and do not have to rely on their own earnings to operate, they have little incentive to cut costs or maximize revenue.41 Yet the Administration and many Members of Congress appear willing to entrust these agencies with more land.
States as Models of Stewardship.
In contrast to federal land agencies, state land management agencies generally have been more cost-efficient managers. The states earn profits from allowing mining, logging, grazing, and recreation activities on public land. Between 1994 and 1996, ten Western states earned a combined average of $5.56 per dollar spent managing state trust lands,42 compared with $0.30 earned per dollar spent by the Forest Service and $0.94 earned per dollar spent by the Bureau of Land Management.43 Not only do the federal land agencies earn far less than state agencies do, but they also outspend the states on a per-acre basis. In fact, on average, the Forest Service spends more than five times what the states spend, and the Bureau of Land Management spends nearly twice what the states do.44 "[T]he difference between state and federal agencies," as the PERC study notes,
is that state agencies must earn revenues from their public lands to support state infrastructures such as schools. As a result they have a strong incentive to be cost-efficient and generate revenues.45
What Federal Management Costs the States. Currently, the United States government owns 50 percent or more of the land in 180 counties.46 Local communities and states are unable to collect taxes on this property or to sell or lease the acreage to generate revenue. Such property taxes could be used to fund school systems, police and fire departments, libraries, and other local and state government functions. As a result, federal land holdings impose costly economic burdens on communities and large financial commitments on the American taxpayer.
To compensate local governments for lost revenues that result from an inability to assess property taxes on federally owned land, Congress passed the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) law.47 Under the current formula, Congress promised over $260 million in PILT payments per year.48 On average, Congress promised the counties $0.43 per acre under the PILT formula. However, funding for PILT has fallen each of the past six years. In FY 1998, funding fell to an all-time low; Congress funded 45.6 percent of the payments it promised under the PILT formula.49
Privatization and devolution of public land would lessen this economic impact on local communities and allow the federal land management agencies to focus on the needs of lands that properly belong under federal control.
The advantages of privatization can be studied best by conducting demonstration projects on appropriate public land under state or federal control. Land management responsibilities should be transferred or sold to private entities that would raise operating funds by charging fair market value for uses such as grazing, timber production, and recreation.
Land management agencies also could lease federal land to private entities. Long-term leases would convey full rights to the land for grazing or timbering. The terms of the lease could include provisions that allow full public access to the lands for hunting, hiking, and recreation. The leases also could include language to allow the private entities to use various measures to enhance wildlife habitat or watershed conditions. Provisions could be included for lease cancellation in unforeseen circumstances, although the government would have to compensate the lessees for expenses associated with such terminations. Long-term leasing is an option with a range of implementation possibilities, from very tight control over lessee use of the land to almost total lessee discretion.
The effectiveness of such privatization demonstration projects would be enhanced if their provisions incorporated market incentives. For example, wilderness preservation proponents should be allowed to compete with ranchers, loggers, and miners to buy grazing, timber, and mineral rights in wilderness areas. This would ensure that free-market principles dictate federal land usage.
Examples of Public vs. Private Land Management.
A forthcoming study by Holly Fretwell of PERC highlights examples of successful land management practices by private companies and organizations.50 They demonstrate that careful management of natural resources can generate substantial income while conserving resources. For example, the study highlights:
In a neighboring forest owned by the Boise Cascade Corporation, however, there has been little loss from insect damage. To protect the commercial value of their timber, company managers regularly thin and prune the forest--imitating the actions of wildfires and encouraging tree growth. Without a dense undergrowth of fir, the open ponderosa pine forest has been more resistant to disease and infestation. Proper logging practices and the lack of burdensome regulations have helped the Boise Cascade forest to replicate the ponderosa pine forest that stood in the Blue Mountains 100 years ago.
Intermixed with the national forest land are private lands. Forests on these private lands have been thinned and salvage timber has been harvested in order to promote optimum growth and forest health. Landowners grow and harvest forest products while promoting forest health, wildlife habitat, clean water, and recreational opportunities.
In 1977, the White Mountain Apache tribe took control of hunting on the reservation and made some drastic changes. In its first year, the tribe issued just 12 permits for $750 each. Today, the reservation has what is arguably the best elk herd in North America. Only 70 permits are issued each year for trophy bull elk at a cost of about $24,000 each. There is a five-year waiting list for the permits. To improve the quality of the herd, the tribe hired biologists to assist them with land management. Open meadows that provide abundant forage were protected, livestock grazing was reduced, and logging was restricted in the high country, riparian zones, and mountain meadows. The tribe used market incentives and land stewardship to encourage a flourishing wildlife community.
These types of positive environmental results are building grassroots support for privatization of federal land management functions and reducing the amount of land owned by federal and state governments.
[There is] no safer depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves; if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it away from them, but to inform their discretion.53
America's Founders did not envision the federal government as proprietor of enormous tracts of land. Yet today, the federal government owns 50 percent of the land in five states and over 25 percent of the land in an additional seven states. 54
Congress should ensure that the federal government owns only land that possesses unique historical, recreational, or biological qualities, and that federal land management agencies are managing those land resources both efficiently and effectively. To that end, Congress should:
Define when it is in the national interest for the federal government to take away private ownership of land.
Congress should ensure that the federal government manages only land that possesses unique historic, recreational, or biological qualities. Lands, such as Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon, for example, are appropriate assets of the American people and belong under federal control.
Initiate a thorough investigation of the federal government's current land holdings and land management activities.
Congress should require federal land management agencies to provide an integrated inventory of their existing public lands and assets. This information then could be used to determine potential uses for those lands and whether the lands meet the criteria for federal or private ownership.
Determine what role federal land managers should have in caring for public land.
Federal land managers should be allowed to privatize various management responsibilities, set fees, create new programs, and fund operations from their revenues.55 Examples of this approach are the funding of maintenance and operations at Mount Vernon and Williamsburg, Virginia. Both of these facilities have been operated privately for decades. Their market-based entrance fees cover their maintenance costs yet do not deter the millions of tourists who visit them each year.56
Hold federal land management agencies accountable.
Federal agencies must adhere to strict, results-oriented performance goals for conserving the land the federal government owns and places under their control.
Facilitate the privatization of land that should not be under federal or state control.
The Framers of the Constitution understood that people care most about the environment in which they live and that government closest to the people is the most effective at implementing policies that promote conservation while respecting property rights. To ensure better local conservation and utilization of land that does not have unique historical, recreational, or biological qualities, or that should not be devolved to the states, Congress should pursue privatization. Transferring appropriate lands to individuals, corporations, or organizations would facilitate strong local stakes in economically and environmentally beneficial activities. Concerns about the prices to be paid for the land or restrictions on its use, if any, can be addressed during the process. Privatizing land that should not be under federal or state control would relieve the financial burden inappropriate federal holdings inflict on the taxpayers and U.S. Treasury. It also would encourage local interest and investment in conserving America's resources. Public land that does not meet the criteria for federal ownership but is not suitable for privatization should be devolved to the states, which generally manage public land efficiently and with greater responsiveness to local needs and
As Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in New York v. United States, "some truths are so basic that, like the air around us, they are easily overlooked."57 Today, the importance of balancing the principles of natural resource conservation, federalism, and property rights in federal efforts to preserve land resources for the future is just such a truth.
The federal government, however, has adopted a command-and-control, one-size-fits-all system of land management from distant Washington that is economically wasteful and often environmentally harmful. Both the President and Congress are proposing significant increases in funding for a federal land management system that is badly broken.
If Americans are to care for their land resources more effectively, this system must be replaced with an approach that balances the conservation of nature with the needs of humans and local communities. It is clear that, with accurate information, proper priorities, and smart choices, a great deal of good can be accomplished by bringing the principle of federalism into the management of America's great land resources.
Alexander F. Annett is a former Environmental Policy Analyst in The Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
4. Testimony of Barry T. Hill, Associate Director for Energy, Resources, and Science, U.S. General Accounting Office, in Department of the Interior and Related Agencies Appropriations for 1999, hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, U.S. House of Representatives, 105th Cong., 2nd Sess., February 4, 1998, p. 147.
14. Barry T. Hill, Federal Lands: Information on the Acreage, Management, and Use of Federal and Other Lands, testimony before the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Lands, Committee on Resources, U.S. House of Representatives, GAO/T-RCED-96-104, March 21, 1996, p. 3.
18. National Wilderness Institute, "State by State Government Land Ownership," 1995, at http://www.nwi.org/Maps/LandChart.html.
25. U.S. General Accounting Office, National Park Service: Efforts to Identity and Manage the Maintenance Backlog, Report to the Ranking Minority Member, Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands, Committee on Resources, U.S. House of Representatives, GAO/RCED-98-143, May 1998, p. 3.
28. Full text of the Government Performance and Results Act, Sec. 2(b), available at http://freedom.house.gov/results/legislation/p1103-62.asp.
56. Adam D. Thierer and Scott A. Hodge, "Federal Land and Resource Management," in Scott A. Hodge, ed., Balancing America's Budget: Ending the Era of Big Government (Washington, D.C.: Heritage Foundation, 1997), p. 133.