Devolving federal responsibilities to the states has emerged as a central theme of the 104th Congress. No area has greater potential for decentralization than Western public lands. In the eleven westernmost of the lower 48 states, the federal government owns 47 percent of the land. Historically, the control over the use of land has been considered the most local of government functions. Yet in the rural West, federal ownership means that federal agencies are in effect the planning and zoning boards for much of the land. Federal land ownership on the scale seen in the western United States is a basic anomaly in the American federal system.
A transfer of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands to the states would signify the end of the progressive era in public land management which sought to rely upon scientific management of public resources. This era is coming to a close and federal policy should reflect this fact.
One of the major advantages of state ownership of land would be a much wider leeway for experimentation in land management approaches, as compared with the one-size-fits-all approach of the current federal system. The current lack of flexibility on the public lands fails to reflect the diversity of values, political cultures, geography and other key features across the West.
On BLM rangelands, the general economic deficiencies of federal land management are exacerbated by the very low productivity of the surface areas being managed. Indeed, it is remarkable that an agency can lose money on the management of a natural resource asset that includes 10 percent of the land area of the lower 48 states, 33 percent of the total coal reserves of the United States, and 5 percent of the nation’s oil and gas reserves. This failure on the part of the BLM reflects the political pressures that have come to dominate the management of public lands, resulting in minimum revenues and maximum costs.
There are a number of political obstacles to transferring BLM lands to western states. Not all states will gain fiscally in the short run from the acquisition of federal lands. Some state governments are thus ambivalent about the possibility of taking ownership of BLM lands. Many ranchers are concerned that transferring lands would threaten their current status on the lands. Another obstacle is the argument that to do so would give away public resources of great value without any return to the taxpayer. Despite these obstacles, there are numerous factors that could increase the possibility of a transfer.
The states at present own substantial lands, many of them remaining from large transfers of land to states in the nineteenth century. The management of these lands was little studied until recently. Although the conventional wisdom had been that states were doing a poor job, these studies on the whole have assessed state management in considerably more positive terms. Indeed, for the state holdings in large contiguous blocks that are most manageable and thus are more comparable to many federal lands, the state record compares favorably with federal results.
As lands generally having few nationally distinctive characteristics, the BLM lands are a logical starting place for any state transfer proposal. The following principles could provide a basis for developing improved future legislation to offer western states the option of taking possession of BLM lands.
- 1. Formally recognize rancher grazing rights to rangeland forage;
2. Complete the wilderness designations for BLM lands and develop a process to identify any other nationally significant lands;
3. Clarify that BLM lands transferred to states would not then be subject to federal environmental impact statement and land-use planning requirements;
4. Provide that any existing endangered species requirements for BLM lands will be maintained in effect;
5. Provide that the Endangered Species Act will otherwise apply to transferred lands in the same manner it applies to existing state lands;
6. Exclude the O&C forest lands in Western Oregon from any transfer proposal;
7. Establish open-access easements assuring continued ordinary dispersed recreation on transferred lands;
8. Consider maintaining fire fighting as a federal function;
9. Convert existing federal spending on BLM lands into block grants to be gradually phased out;
10. Phase out the federal share of revenues from existing federal mineral leases over a similar interim period;
11. Immediately transfer the ownership of all unleased federal leasable minerals to the states;
12. Provide that all mining claims on transferred BLM land will be administered for twenty years under the terms of federal law;
13. Immediately transfer ownership of all federal “hardrock” minerals below BLM and state lands to the states;
14. Transfer inholdings of existing state lands that lie within nationally significant areas to the federal government;
15. Transfer BLM lands and state inholdings to Indian tribes where these lands are located within the boundaries of Indian reservations;
16. Retain the liability at the federal level for paying future cleanup costs of any toxic waste sites on current BLM land;
17. Require that a state transfer request be approved by the state’s legislature and signed by the governor.