By RT H. NELSON
Late last month the Senate passed a non-binding budget resolution that encourages the selling or transfer of federal lands to state and local governments. With a Republican Congress, the longstanding question over federal management of public lands is resurfacing once again with renewed urgency.
The federal government owns large parts of the forests, deserts and other rural areas of the American West – in total around half of all the land in the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Coast states. Roughly 30% of federal lands are made up of wilderness and national parks, while the rest are used for timber harvesting, grazing, energy leasing and recreation.
This pervasive federal presence is a product of policies championed at the turn of the 20th century.
Throughout the nineteenth century, however, the government aggressively disposed of its land holdings to private landowners and state governments, seeking to advance economic development and the pursuit of “manifest destiny.” It was in the period from 1890 to 1920 that American Progressives successfully argued that these lands would be more expertly managed in federal hands.
After more than 100 years of experience, we now know otherwise, that these lands would be better under state or private management. It’s a lesson I learned well during almost two decades at the Department of the Interior working as a policy analyst in the Office of the Secretary.
Instead of much greater efficiency, the research conducted by myself and others has shown that federal management turned out to be wasteful — typical of many government-owned enterprises around the world over the course of the 20th century — as well as detrimental to the land itself.