Letters from the West

Public lands need innovation in management not necessarily new owners

Supporters of transferring public lands from the federal government to the states use the Property and Environment Research Center report as evidence the states could manage the lands more efficiently. On a quick pass it appears to support the idea since it shows in a comparison of the revenues and expenses for federal and state trust lands in Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Arizona that the states do better on their endowment lands.

The federal government generates just 73 cents in revenue per $1 spent, while states generate $14.51 for every $1 spent, the PERC report written by Shawn Regan and Holly Fretwell shows. But Regan points out that the two types of land are managed very differently. States maximize returns while the federal government has multiple users it must please.

Still, when he heard Sally Jewell's comment that transferring the public land of all Americans to western states for free "cheated" the owners of the public lands he didn't take it lying down.

" It's not clear that federal land management, in its current form, is necessarily a good deal for taxpayers. Federal land agencies repeatedly lose money. The Forest Service and BLM together lose nearly $2 billion each year on average, according for our analysis. So it's not as if the current system is necessarily a great deal for taxpayers," he said.

He’s not taking sides in the transfer debate. But Regan said his analysis suggests that, when it comes to managing federal lands, there is much that could be improved.

"Regardless of whether lands are transferred to states or not, there is still a lot of room for improvement.," said. " We should continue to innovate and encourage debates about management alternatives, whether it's local control, collaboration, or even trust management. "

One of the ideas PERC is examining is University of Maryland Economist Robert Nelson's " charter forests, " which is the latest form of alternative management that would not take the ownership away from the rest of us. It borrows lessons and branding from charter schools.

The two sides of the public land transfer debate are lining up for a long political battle this time with big money behind both sides. But at a time rural America must retool its communities to meet the demands of urban America if it is to survive, Regan's call for innovation makes sense.

There is wisdom on all sides of this debate from free marketers to supporters of subsidizing rural community stability, a long time American policy. National Parks have flourished since Congress allowed them to keep some of their users fees on site and to negotiate concession contracts to help pay for capital costs, good free market ideas.

Stewardship logging contracts have allowed forests to take the receipts from logging and use the funds for restoration that also creates jobs. The U.S.D.A.'s "Good Neighbor" policy allows states to work closer with the Forest Service to increase management and even allows states to funding logging programs. The same is possible for recreation, said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell.

"We should not discourage outside-the-box thinking that addresses some of the issues that have been brought up in the debate over the transfer of public lands," Regan said.