by Robert Nelson
Aside from the original 13 states on the Eastern seaboard, most of the land in the United States at one time belonged to the federal government—a result of the Louisiana Purchase, the Mexican-American War, and other important events in American history. Federal policies for these lands such as the Homestead Act, the railroad land grants, and the land allocations to American Indians were among the most significant American government actions of the 19th century. The overriding policy goal was to transfer the lands out of federal ownership to private owners and to the states, both of whom received hundreds of millions of acres in total. Transferring the lands to new ownership was seen as a first step in putting them to productive use as part of the essential task of building a new nation.
After this 19th-century “era of disposal,” the federal government shifted to a policy of retention of the lands in federal ownership around the beginning of the 20th century. It was a reflection of basic new political and economic ideas emerging in the United States during the progressive era. The progressive “gospel of efficiency” preached that scientific management could better serve the nation’s needs than the chaotic, trial-and-error processes of the free market. In much of the American economy, large American business corporations were in fact substituting internal private planning and administration for the old decentralized market processes. The progressives, however, were unwilling to transfer the federal lands to such large and concentrated private ownerships. Instead, they sought the scientific management of the lands through the creation of new public agencies with their own comprehensive internal planning and administration. The result was the establishment of the Bureau of Reclamation in 1902, the first federal wildlife refuge in 1903, the U.S. Forest Service in 1905, and the National Park Service in 1916. Democratic socialists advocated similar policies in Europe at the same time, if with less deference given to the need for ultimate democratic control.
The progressives were unwilling to transfer the federal lands to large and concentrated private ownerships.Vast areas of federal lands are still present today in the West as the legacy of these progressive-era developments (the Bureau of Land Management, the other federal agency with major land management responsibilities, was not created until 1946, although still as a deferred application of the same progressive principles). Total federal ownership today covers about 50 percent of the land area of the American West. The state of California, remarkably enough, is 45 percent federal land. The lands managed by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are commonly known as “the public lands.”
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. The old progressive mission of scientific management has been strongly challenged—and indeed sometimes altogether displaced—by new ideas advanced by the environmental movement. Yet, the original progressive institutional forms dating back 100 years remain with us little altered. The result is an antiquated and costly system of public land management that is unsure of either its goals or methods. There is now approaching a consensus among informed observers that public land management wastes large amounts of money while mainly serving the private interests and other narrow groups that benefit from the lands.
After an initial century of disposal of the lands, and then a second century of federal land retention and direct management, it is time for a new era that will redefine the history of these lands for the 21st century. This will require challenges to longstanding institutions and basic assumptions; such changes are always difficult in government. Long periods may go by in which little of real significance happens. It is difficult if not impossible to predict when the workings of glacial forces may suddenly break loose. It is at least a possibility, however, that the current fiscal crisis will prove to be a precipitating event in finally driving a basic rethinking and reorganization of the public lands in the West. Indeed, the public lands will be a good test case of national fiscal resolve. The public lands offer a leading candidate for government cost cutting.
Public Land Waste
Just by themselves, the national forests, managed by the U.S. Forest Service in the U.S. Agriculture Department, are 40 percent of the land in Idaho. In Nevada, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the Interior Department manages an even larger portion of the State: 68 percent of the total land area. Truth be told, most of rural Nevada is still as much a federal territory as an independent unit under state governance.
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.
Although the progressives elevated expert planning and management and the attainment of maximum efficiency to their highest goals, 100 years of public land history have shown that the public lands have seldom been managed either expertly or efficiently. Rather, they have been managed mainly in response to strong political pressures. Under political management—and despite the possession of hundreds of millions of acres of land, and large oil and gas, coal, and other valuable mineral assets—the lands proved to be a money-loser for the federal government. The environmental results have not been much better.
In 2005, for example, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a detailed study of the 2004 revenues and costs of livestock grazing on public lands, the most common use of these lands. The BLM authorizes grazing on 138 million acres of public land “allotments” to specific ranchers, covering about six percent of the total land area of the United States. It is testimony to the arid character of most public lands—in many areas, virtual desert—that such a low-revenue activity as livestock grazing historically has been their most economically valuable use. In 2004, according to the GAO, the BLM spent $58 million nationwide on the management of livestock grazing, while collecting a mere $12 million in grazing fees from the rancher users.
The GAO estimate of costs, moreover, probably is grossly understated. In many areas of the rural West managed by the BLM, the principal federal concern is to resolve issues generated by conflicts between livestock grazing and other uses. Absent the cattle and sheep on the BLM lands, a major part of the total BLM budget of $1.1 billion might well be unnecessary. Indeed, if all the complications of the livestock presence did not exist, the states would be well positioned to replace the BLM in managing hunting, hiking, fishing and other recreational uses of the lands. Other than minerals and energy management (which are a small part of the total BLM budget, and might themselves also be turned over to the states), there would be little remaining need for the BLM.