Devolution to the States is Working for Welfare; It Can Work for Public Lands, by Gretchen Randall

It has jurisdiction over a vast empire of historic sites. It has thousands of employees. It controls vast expanses of prairie. It manages hundreds of buildings. Yet it has no inventory of what it actually owns, has a backlog of billions of dollars of maintenance of facilities and roads and can’t assure its trust holders that billions of dollars in its trust accounts are being properly managed.1

What private company could long withstand the scrutiny of such activity by its stockholders? Should such a group guard our precious natural resources or operating our national parks?

Well, it’s not a company – “it” is the federal government and, more specifically, the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI).

A recent Government Accounting Office (GAO) study2 points out that, although the DOI controls over 450 million acres of federal lands, it has no complete inventory of the “lands within its control or the land rights that come with that property.”3

One of the agencies under DOI is the National Park Service, which also received GAO criticism for its lack of attention to the safety of the public in its 379 parks.4

The Park Service concedes it has a backlog of $7-13 billion in maintenance but more revealing is this fact: It admits it has so much land to oversee that it has no accurate idea of what resources need protecting.5

Last year forest fires in National Forests (which are controlled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture) burned over 8 million acres. This cost taxpayers over a billion dollars.6 Much of this cost might have been prevented if proper forest management practices were allowed. Instead, foresters are hampered by the former forest chief’s management practices, which prevented thinning and logging to control fires. Foresters are further hampered by the fact that roads are to be “de-commissioned” and no new roads built. This will make it even more difficult for fire fighters to control fires so they don’t burn thousands of acres, nearby communities and threaten – or take – lives.

And yet, despite such mismanagement, many want the federal government to control even more land. The Bush Administration has allotted $390 million in its budget7 to acquire additional land for the federal government – while it is mismanaging what it already owns.

This brings up the question: Who would be the best steward of government lands – the states or the federal government? The states couldn’t do any worse than the federal government has.

Yet, a recent article in Field and Stream, a magazine for hunters, deplored such a debate, crying that federal lands are needed for hunters.8 But there is no guarantee to hunting on federal lands. The Clinton Administration set aside millions of acres as national monuments. In many national monuments as well as wilderness areas, hunting is not allowed.

The debate over land management is not new. In 1995, Senator Conrad Burns (R-MT) and Senator Craig Thomas (R-WY) introduced a bill to transfer all Bureau of Land Management lands to the states. That would amount to 8 million acres in Montana, 11 million acres in Idaho and 17 million acres in Wyoming alone.9 Senator Burns said in its defense, as reported by Field and Stream, “The federal government now controls nearly one-third of the land of the United States. That is wrong, and was never intended to be as envisioned by the founders of our nation nor the framers of our Constitution.”10 The bill didn’t pass.

Instead of trying to wrest ownership of federal lands from the federal government, a more reasonable approach might be to block grant the money now appropriated for management of these lands to the states. In addition, control over both the lands and the employees of agencies such as the Forest Service, National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management could be given to the states.

Such devolution worked for welfare reform. It would for federal lands.

Those closest to the forests and parks have the greatest interest in keeping their lands beautiful and viable. For the sake of the lands, change is needed.


Gretchen Randall is the Director of Energy and Regulatory Affairs of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank.

1 “Government at the Brink: An Agency by Agency Examination of Federal Government Management Problems facing the Bush Administration, Volume II,” June, 2001, downloaded from
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 National Fire News, National Interagency Fire Center, Boise, Idaho, downloaded from
7 “Historic Budget for the Land & Water Conservation Fund,” press release, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC, April 9, 2001.
8 Hal Herring, “No Place Whatsoever,” Field and Stream online, downloaded from the Internet at http://www.fieldandstream/sportsmansissues/fs/noplace.html.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.