Land Transfer Proposal: Can States Do a Better Job Managing Public Lands Than The Feds?



by Jeanne Roberts
Photo: Zion National Park – Utah

On Tuesday, January 3, the U.S. House of Representatives voted yes on a rule that will make it easier to transfer government-held lands to states – a measure favored by Texas Republican Rep. Pete Sessions, but worrying to campers, hikers, and hunters as well as environmentalists and public policy organizations.

According to Utah’s District 1 Republican Representative, Rob Bishop, the rule is aimed at easing the burden on those communities which have grown up around federal land without being able to use it or even collect fees generated by it. National parks are a prime example.

Bishop, who is Chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, says the rule (H. RES. 5, Sec. 3, p. 35) will also help reduce the federal government’s land holdings, which are both extensive and expensive. In fact, the entire rules package is designed to target – and possibly terminate – a number of environmental rules (and rule-making agencies).

The most upsetting part of the idea is that the government would be giving away the land and we, the people, would get no return on the land. This, the Cato Institute points out, is because the root of the problem is the “political allocation of natural resources to favored constituencies”. In other words, the proposal clears the way for states to sell off parcels of once-public land to the highest bidder for oil, gas and mineral exploration.

The proposal is devastating to those who plunked down their life savings for a parcel of land next to a national park so that their pristine view would remain unspoiled for a lifetime. It’s equally troubling to the 307 million Americans who visited national parks in 2015, or the estimated 325 million who took to the nation’s roads in 2016 to white-water raft the Grand Canyon, see the magnificently regular geysers in Yellowstone, or fish for rainbow trout in the rocky, rushing rivers of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

Proponents of the rule say it provides a platform from which to cut back on “regulatory overreach” that is “at odds with the actual authority of Congress. A prime example of that, they say, was the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s handling of the 2015 Clean Power Plan (under the Clean Air Act umbrella). Many states still either struggling to comply or suing for relief (and winning, in the case of Michigan).

Opponents argue that the federal government manages public lands better than state or local governments, who often have a vested self-interest in leasing or selling land to developers, oil and gas explorations firms, or mining companies. While this true, it is largely because the federal government is tapped out, and continues to provide states with less and less in the way of infrastructure (i.e., road repair) funding and social program safety nets like WIC.

President Donald Trump, in the weeks before he was elected, was opposed to federal land transfers, pointing out that states and localities could not afford to take care of the land, since the fees generated by public use do not even come close to the costs of managing such land. One pundit has suggested privatization is the only way forward.

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