In recent years, several western states have considered resolutions demanding that the federal government transfer much of this land to state ownership. These efforts are motivated by concerns over federal land management, including restrictions on natural resource development, poor land stewardship, limitations on access, and low financial returns.
A recent study compares state and federal land management in the West. It examines the revenues and expenditures associated with federal land management and compares them with state trust land management in four western states: Montana, Idaho, New Mexico, and Arizona. The information below explains why revenues and expenditures differ between state and federal land agencies and discusses several possible implications of transferring federal lands to the states.
There is a great divide in the United States. Land in the East is mostly privately owned, while nearly half of the land in the West is owned by the federal government. In recent years, several western states have passed, introduced, or considered resolutions demanding that the federal government transfer much of this land to state ownership.
These efforts are motivated by local concerns over federal land management, including restrictions on natural resource development, poor land stewardship, limitations on access, and low financial returns. The resolutions reflect a sentiment in many western states that state control will result in better public land management. To date, however, there has been little research comparing the costs of state and federal land management. Most existing studies assume that the costs of federal land management would be the same under state management and do not consider the different management goals, regulatory requirements, and incentive structures that govern state and federal lands.
1. The federal government loses money managing valuable natural resources on federal lands, while states generate significant financial returns from state trust lands.
2. The states examined in this study earn an average of $14.51 for every dollar spent on state trust land management. The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management generate only 73 cents in return for every dollar spent on federal land management.
3. On average, states generate more revenue per dollar spent than the federal government on a variety of land management activities, including timber, grazing, minerals, and recreation.
4. These outcomes are the result of the different statutory, regulatory, and administrative frameworks that govern state and federal lands. States have a fiduciary responsibility to generate revenues from state trust lands, while federal land agencies face overlapping and conflicting regulations and often lack a clear mandate.
5. If federal lands were transferred, states could likely earn much greater revenues than the federal government. However, transfer proponents must consider how land management would have to change in order to generate those revenues under state control.