Our Languishing Public Lands


In 2012, an excellent article by Robert H. Nelson was published by Policy Review, a publication of the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. This article clearly sets forth the predicament we find our public lands in, how it got here and what must be done to remedy this serious problem.

Opponents to the Transfer of Public Lands would like you to believe that this is a new idea, promoted by right-wing extremists who somehow stand to personally benefit from the transfer. Nothing could be further from the truth. But this article does a good job of explaining some of the problems that have perpetuated these failed policies, including some states' desires to have the federal money without the federal control. We know that only a transfer of the public lands, with all of the responsibilities and benefits, will allow states the full sovereignty that is required for stability.

Your three minute assignment for today is to review the following excerpts from this report and send them on to your acquaintances. For those of you with some extra passion, I encourage you to read the entire report (19 easy-to-read pages).

Little did Mr. Nelson know how prophetic he was when in 2012 he made the statement, "The final details will have to emerge from the normal give and take of politics. But let the discussions begin." The American Lands Council is happy to have brought this discussion to the forefront of the public awareness and we look forward to continuing our campaign to educate every citizen about the necessity of the Transfer of Public Lands to all willing western states.
(Following are excerpts from "Our Languishing Public Lands" by Robert H. Nelson


Like a number of other applications of progressive ideas (regulation of interstate commerce, for example, by the Interstate Commerce Commission), the public lands have failed the test of time. Management of the lands has been neither scientific nor efficient.

Public Land Waste

On these public lands, the most important decisions typically concern matters such as the number of cows that will be allowed to graze, building of local roads, levels of timber harvests, leasing of land for oil and gas drilling, building and maintaining hiking trails, prevention and fighting of forest fires, determining areas that will be available to off-road recreational vehicles, and other such routine land management details. Outside the West, such matters are either private or are state and local responsibilities paid for by state and local governments. In the rural West, the federal government often pays — and also decides.

From Economic to Ecological Goals

The 2001 Forest Service financial analysis described above also detailed the trends during the 1990s in the economic “present net value” (pnv) derived from all national forest outputs. As the Forest Service reported, the “all resources pnv” for the whole national forest system — covering all the forms of use — fell from more than one billion dollars in total values realized in 1991 to about $300 million in 1998. Most of this sharp economic decline was due to the precipitous drop in timber program pnv, but the abandonment of former timber sale activities did not yield any new gains in the pnv of recreation or other uses to balance things out.

The Northern Spotted Owl

It was not only the federal government whose revenues were affected. Traditionally, the federal government has transferred 25 percent of the gross timber sale revenues to the states where the sales occurred. The states then transferred the funds to the specific local counties for support of schools and other purposes. The drastic falloff in timber sales in the 1990s thus threatened the counties with large losses in federal transfers of timber revenues.

Few Revenues and High Costs

...the ultimate net cost of national forest management borne by American taxpayers in 2010 was around $4 billion — this on lands representing nearly ten percent of the land area of the United States and often containing valuable natural resources.

Our Languishing Public Lands

Thus, even as it has officially endorsed a new agency way of thinking that seeks to deliberately minimize human management actions, Forest Service personnel numbers and total spending have not fallen at all. The Forest Service had 35,000 permanent employees in 2010, more than the 33,000 it had in 1990. Total spending specifically for national forest management purposes remained steady around $1.5 billion throughout the 1980s, about the same level as it is today. But total Forest Service spending soared from levels of around $3 billion per year during the 1980s to more than $6 billion in 2010.

The "Fire Service"

A large part of the explanation for the higher Forest Service budget is the greatly increased spending for forest fire prevention and suppression. Ecosystem management may have been the new official management philosophy but some wags have recently suggested that the Forest Service should now be renamed the “Fire Service.” Instead of minimizing human impacts as sought by ecosystem management, the emphasis shifted from timber harvesting to firefighting. (Such is the law of unintended consequences...

A Dysfunctional System

Admittedly, the large economic and environmental failures on the national forests were not altogether the fault of the Forest Service. Even if it had wanted to, it probably would have been unable to address adequately the growing fire problem. An unwieldy system of environmental and land use planning mandated by Congress in the 1970s, a proliferation of law suits and resulting judicial oversight of management and policy decisions, increased congressional and White House direct political intervention, and other factors have created a dysfunctional federal decision making process for the national forests.

The Benefits of Federal Dependence

All this was admittedly the latest installment in a longstanding western history. Since the federal government decided 100 years ago in the progressive era to maintain a permanent dominant presence in the rural West, the region has often complained bitterly of federal mismanagement. But federal management has also meant federal money, and lots of it. When push came to shove, the West has always chosen the money over steps to break free from federal control. More than 50 years ago Bernard DeVoto uttered perhaps the truest statement ever made with respect to the public lands and the rural West; the actual western view of the place of the federal government, DeVoto explained, is: “Go away and give us more money.”

Mounting Pressures for Change

Professor Sally Fairfax of the University of California, Berkeley, America’s foremost political scientist in studying the public lands, observes that the creation of the national forests established “a relationship between the national government and the western states that is usefully described as colonial.”

A Plan

A first thought might be simply to sell off much of the public lands and apply the large sale revenues (potentially hundreds of billions of dollars) to reducing the national debt — as a business corporation might sell off its money losing divisions. At one time, that might have been a good idea. But too many years have now passed, creating implicit historic entitlements that will have to be recognized. Ranchers, for example, cannot simply be evicted from their historic allotments — formally established in the 1930s following the enactment of the Taylor Grazing Act — to make way for new higher bidders.

American Lands Council

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  • Mike Petersen
    commented 2015-12-28 09:45:39 -0700
    The narrow scope of this article misses the most important purpose of public lands. The author forgot about the water, air and wildlife that provides the public with drinking water, hunting and fishing opportunities, and a shared natural heritage of wildlife and forests. It is laughable to think the state of Idaho, who has mismanaged their state owned lands, could responsibly manage federal lands. Most of the large wildfires in Washington state this year did not start on national forests, they started on private, tribal and state lands – so much for the authors understanding of forest fires and management. The Lands Council (not American Lands Council) works with the Forest Service and timber companies in the northwest to do legitimate restoration. We all know staff cutbacks, consolidation of offices and budget cuts are impacting the agency’s ability to move forward. Mike Petersen, The Lands Council