Friday, November 21, 2008

Keep Our Public Lands in Public Hands!

Over the years, there have been numerous proposals to transfer public
lands (those administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)) to
the states in which the lands are located and some suggestions
to "privatize" all or some of these lands. Such proposals involve the
transfer of tremendous national assets and revenues to a small number
of fortunate states or individuals
. While the public lands belong to
all citizens, their location primarily in western states results in
many citizens in other parts of the country being unaware of their
existence or their value as national assets.


The federal government holds public lands in trust so that this
generation and those who will follow us can enjoy both their beauty
and their bounty. Congress has long recognized the national interest
in preserving and conserving the public lands for present and future
generations of Americans. In 1891 Congress created the first national
forest reserves in the Pacific Northwest to protect them from the
fate of the eastern forests, which had been denuded by unrestrained
logging. During the 1930's the Garfield Committee recommended
transferring public lands to the states, but this was not acceptable
to the American public; and in 1934 Congress passed the Taylor
Grazing Act to strengthen the concept of Federal management.

In 1964 the Classification and Multiple Use Act provided criteria to
be applied to the lands before determining which should be identified
for retention or disposal. In this process of public involvement,
many public meetings were held with state and local officials
resulting in over 175 million acres being classified for retention in
federal ownership. This began a process for stabilizing the tenure of
retained public lands augmented by the Public Land Law Review
Commission's report in 1970 that led directly to another important
event - enactment of an "Organic Act" for the public lands
administered by BLM, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of
1976 (FLPMA). In FLPMA Congress made a final legislative recognition
as to the future status of these public lands by declaring that "the
public lands be retained in Federal ownership unless, as a result of
the land use planning procedures provided for in the Act, it is
determined that disposal of a particular tract will serve the
national interest." This policy declaration by Congress is the same
as the decisions made regarding the status of public lands
administered by the Forest Service in the Forest and Rangelands
Renewable Resources Planning Act of 1974 and the National Forest
Management Act of 1976.

At stake in this public land ownership issue is the protection and
management of assets that belong to all citizens and future
generations. The 264 million acres of public lands managed by the BLM
are extraordinarily diverse. They include desert mountain ranges,
alpine tundra, evergreen forests, expanses of rangeland and red rock
canyons. Consistent with FLPMA, these lands are managed for multiple
use: recreation, grazing, forestry, mineral development, watershed
protection, fish and wildlife conservation, wilderness values, air
and water quality and soil conservation. The public lands contain
invaluable scenic, historic, and cultural sites as well.
Archaeological, historic, and paleontological properties on public
lands form the most important body of cultural resources in the
United States.

The use and development of the public lands has been influenced by
the complex relationship between the federal government and states.
Past experience suggests that the public lands are managed most
effectively through federal cooperation with states and local
communities. This is occurring today, with increasing numbers of
collaborative partnerships and shared stewardship among the federal,
state, and local governments, Tribes, and a host of private


The primary reason the public lands should remain in public ownership
is that they do/will provide enormous resources/benefits (both
economic and non-economic) to all citizens and future generations of
this country. The public lands contain resources such as minerals,
rangelands, forests, recreation, cultural resources, etc. worth
billions of dollars. As significantly, these lands offer
environmental values such as clean water, clean air, and proximity to
mountains and rivers. In an increasingly crowded West, the public
lands offer perhaps the most valuable asset of all - open space. As
owners of the public lands, citizens/taxpayers of the United States
have the right to use and enjoy these lands and resources - immensely
valuable national public assets. The quality of these assets would
likely be significantly diminished for the American citizens if the
public lands do not remain in federal ownership.

Transfer of public lands out of federal ownership would present many
significant drawbacks; these are discussed below.

Transfer of resources and revenues owned by all Americans to a
relatively small number of states is unfair to American taxpayers. A
transfer of lands would deprive American taxpayers of tens of
billions of dollars worth of resources contained on the public lands,
including coal, oil and natural gas, other mineral resources,
rangelands, forests, recreation and cultural resources, and many
others. Over the short term, a small net reduction in the annual
federal appropriations customarily required for management of the
public lands might be realized, but this would be offset by nearly an
equal loss to the U.S. Treasury in receipts from these lands.
Taxpayers could lose receipts of more than $1.2 billion each year
that currently are generated from the federal lands by energy and
mineral leasing, grazing of private livestock, recreation and timber
sales. (It is important to note that the federal receipts would be
substantially greater had Congress authorized the collection of fair
market value and/or royalties for the natural resources harvested
from public lands and retention of a greater percentage of these
receipts in the U.S. treasury.)

States and counties where public lands are located currently receive
a significant share of receipts from the public lands managed by the
BLM (50% of mineral receipts in the lower 48 states and 90% of
mineral receipts in Alaska, 75% of the Oregon and California Grant
Lands (timber) receipts) with no responsibility for management,
protection, law enforcement, etc. Since about $640 million was
returned to the states for their use in 1996, one wonders why some
states would support the land transfers. In fact, many states do not
support them.

Transferring ownership would restrict the public's access to public
lands. In 1996, nearly 60 million people visited the public lands for
recreational purposes, an increase of about 15 percent since 1994.
Over 29,000 conservation, recreation and wilderness areas on the
public lands are open to the public, as are sites of cultural,
archaeological, and religious significance. The public lands
administered by the BLM offer more recreational opportunities over a
broader geographical area than lands of any other Federal agency.
There is no guarantee that Americans would continue to enjoy access
to these lands, since state lands in some states are closed to public
access and existing state recreation policies on state-owned lands
vary widely. Hunters, anglers, campers, hikers, and other
recreational users would be limited in their access to vast areas of
the West if the lands were transferred out of federal ownership.

Restricted public access could impact the economic health of local
communities which currently benefit from recreational visits to the
public lands. Since states have limited funds and workforce
capability to manage lands they currently own, it is possible that
states would have to impose new increases in state taxes to pay for
new land management responsibilities. Some states would choose
instead to sell at least some of the current public lands they would
acquire to private parties. In fact, the public land livestock user,
other federal lease holders, and large corporations see transfer of
public lands to states as one step closer to the day when they can
acquire title to these lands. Many states, like Nevada, have already
disposed of much of the lands they received under their Enabling

Transfer to private ownership could severely impact availability of
water resources. It is recognized in the West that water will become
its most scarce natural resource. Much of the water that flows into
the water systems comes from BLM and other federal lands. A key
concern in many western communities at present is the need to protect
the water quality and quantity of the community watersheds which
provide the drinking water, etc. to those small communities as well
as large cities. Both recognize the need to jealously guard their
water sources from all intrusions.

Transfer to state/private ownership could negatively impact
environmental values. The protection of non-market values on the
public lands, for example endangered species or ecosystems such as
the old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, is unlikely to occur
outside of Federal government control. These values can be protected
through national control, since the goals of governmental action are
broader than just economic efficiency. Transfer of public lands to
states could shift the focus of management from protection of public
goods and non-market values to a more explicitly profit-maximizing

It is not clear how communities would be compensated for property
taxes if the lands were transferred out of federal ownership. Western
counties depend heavily on the Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) they
receive from the BLM to compensate for property taxes they cannot
collect on these lands. PILT payments exceeded $110 million in 1996
and are budgeted at $120 million in 1998. States are not likely to
continue PILT payments if lands are transferred to state ownership.
In addition, the public would lose essential services, such as
firefighting, provided on the public lands by the federal government.

PLF POSITION: The public lands are a national asset, a part of our
heritage, that should remain in public ownership so that current
citizens and future generations can share in their unfettered beauty
and bounty. In the view of the PLF, there is no benefit to justify
transferring public lands from public ownership. It would be fiscally
irresponsible and would squander much of our natural heritage. The
serious consequences associated with such proposals are a bad deal
for the American public.

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