Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Editorial - Secretary of Federal Imperialism

Donald Trump’s Administration is shaping up to be as unorthodox as his campaign. Further evidence is his choice of Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke for secretary of Interior. Mr. Zinke’s history of deference to Washington landlords isn’t Trumpian.

The Interior Department is responsible for managing 640 million acres of federal land—28% of the U.S. More than half of Nevada (85%), Utah (65%), Idaho (62%), Alaska (61%) and Oregon (53%) belong to Washington. Interior’s canopy covers the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Reclamation and Bureau of Land Management (BLM). These are distinct fiefdoms but are required to coordinate on permitting decisions.

These layers of bureaucracy increase taxpayer costs and delay decision-making. According to the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), federal land agencies lose $2 billion a year. User fees—i.e., permits—are unconnected to the cost of services, and federal agencies have no incentive to restrain spending, which is determined annually by Congress.

By contrast, state natural resources agencies are funded almost entirely by user fees. Between 2009 and 2013, the Forest Service (part of the Agriculture Department) raised on average only 28 cents for every dollar spent on recreation, compared with Montana’s $6.31. PERC estimates that state-managed lands generate 10 times more revenue per full-time employee than those operated by Uncle Sam. About one-fifth of BLM grazing allotments aren’t meeting the agency’s own standards, and the National Park Service has a $12 billion maintenance backlog.

Once upon a time, environmental groups would purchase land for conservation. Now they conscript government to seize it. In 2011 the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to consider the Center for Biological Diversity’s petition to list 757 species under the Endangered Species Act, which could result in hundreds of millions of acres being withdrawn from private use.

An Interior rule-making this year expands the definition of “critical habitat” under the Endangered Species Act, and BLM’s plan to protect the greater sage grouse will inhibit mining, grazing and drilling on 60 million acres in 11 states. A rule finalized by BLM this month reduces state influence in future land-use plans. States and private landholders have sued to block several of Interior’s land grabs.

Mr. Zinke could use consent decrees with litigants to roll back the land grabs. He could also work with Congress to transfer federal lands to states, as legislators in Arizona, Utah, Idaho and Alaska have petitioned. Yet he voted against Speaker Paul Ryan’s budget this year because of an amendment that allowed the sale of federal lands and he opposes transfers to states. He has also supported permanently authorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which Interior uses to buy up even more private property.

Hunting and outdoor groups fear that private developers will pave national parks to put up shopping malls. Yet states have a better track record than Washington of maintaining public resources. They also issue permits in a fraction of the time. Mr. Zinke has opposed the Obama Administration’s regulations on fracking and methane flares on public lands, but his support for imperial federal land managers deserves Senate scrutiny.

No comments: