Public land controversies and problems will be resolved only when the budgetary rewards are changed. Such a change must create and emphasize a feedback loop from the land to the manager. This means a system of user fees, a share of which is kept by the agencies managing the land.
To insure a level playing field, managers must be allowed to charge fees of all users. Agencies must also allow people to purchase timber, grazing rights, or other resources even if they don't intend to use those resources--effectively creating a system of conservation easements on federal land.
Finally, special provision must be made for resources that cannot be protected through user fees--especially biodiversity. A biodiversity trust fund, seeded with a share of public land user fees, can effectively insure the protection of endangered species and other aspects of biodiversity.
Representatives of many interest groups are convinced that they know the best way to manage public lands, and they fear that--given discretion--local land managers will come up with the "wrong" answer. Thus, interest groups continually--and sometimes inadvertently--press for the top-down solution.
The result is a hodge-podge of mandates, slush funds, and special interest favors that often conflict with one another and that inevitably generate mountains of red tape. Users are neither well served nor satisfied with the land management that this produces, but few seem willing to give up the dream of top-down management that favors their interests.
One of the side effects of top-down management is the increasing polarization over public land issues. This is no accident: It is the predictable result of a system that promises total victory to those who are the best organized politically. Interest groups quickly discover that political organization thrives on enemies and demonization.
Bottom-up management doesn't promise total and complete victory over ones enemies. Thus, it holds little attraction for the interest groups attempting to influence public land management. Yet if the rules are carefully designed, bottom-up management can result in a system that satisfies nearly everyone and promotes cooperation instead of polarization.
Nearly every environmental problem on the public lands can be traced to the budgetary process. Most often, agency budgets reward managers for losing money on environmentally destructive activities. For example:
First, agency budgets must come from user fees, not tax dollars. Funding out of user fees ties managers to users and gives managers immediate signals about whether they are doing well or poorly. Funding out of tax dollars leaves managers beholden to politicians and special interest groups.
Second, agencies must be allowed to charge for all uses. Any uses that lobby for low or zero user fees will actually be doing themselves harm, since managers will be most responsive to those who pay them the most.
Third, agencies must be funded out the net income they earn from resource management. Funding agencies out of the gross will lead to overdevelopment as managers use any profits they earn to cross-subsidize money-losing--and probably environmentally destructive--activities.
Fourth, the use-it-or-lose-it contracts that pervade federal land management must be changed to use-it-or-conserve-it. This will make it possible for people to buy timber sales and not cut the trees or to pay grazing fees and leave the forage for wildlife.
Finally, some provision must be made for those resources that cannot be protected by user fees. Biodiversity is the most important such resource. The natural tendency is to fund these resources out of tax dollars, but that will merely create a whole new set of top-down problems as powerful members of Congress fund their favorite endangered species and neglect the rest.
A glance at U.S. agricultural policy shows why privatization is not a sufficient solution. The nation's 420 million acres of agricultural crop lands receive an average of $15 to $20 billion of direct federal subsidies per year. This does not count subsidized irrigation water provided by the Bureau of Reclamation or the costs to consumers of higher prices imposed by import tariffs on sugar and other protected farm products. This means that the average subsidy is well over $35 per private-farm acre.
By comparison, the nation's 640 million acres of non-defense federal lands receive direct federal subsidies of less than $6 billion per year, or under $10 per acre. Privatization is clearly no guarantee of an end to subsidies.
Outright privatization will fail to protect biodiversity and other environmental values that cannot be captured in the marketplace. Advocates of privatization say that this problem can be solved by selling lands with protective covenants that will protect such values. But this means privatization will require two major political battles: One over the protective covenants and one over privatization itself. Neither of these battles are necessary to solve the fiscal and environmental problems posed by federal lands.
A survey of fifty state park agencies found only two that are funded entirely out of user fees. A survey of the fish & wildlife agencies in 47 states found only ten that are funded out of user fees and federal grants from taxes of hunting and fishing equipment. At least fifteen states lose money on their state forests, and nearly all of the state forest agencies depend heavily on state tax dollars for general forestry programs.
In general, the states are just as likely as Congress to cater to special interests by passing special mandates, creating slush funds out of user fees, or building other favors into state land policies. Nor are state legislatures any more aware than Congress of the incentives created by the budgets they prepare for state land and resource agencies. Few states allow agencies to keep user fees without going through an appropriations process, and many penalize managers for earning more revenue by simply cutting other parts of their budgets.
Some state agencies do make money, but ironically they do so because of a requirement in federal land grants that lands be managed for schools or other beneficiaries. Even this does not insure good management unless the agencies are carefully monitored by the beneficiaries or other parties.
Transferring federal lands to the states may save federal tax dollars. But it is not likely to improve land management. Nevertheless, the state experience suggests that the land trust might be a good model for reforming federal land agencies.
To achieve all of these goals, I propose to convert federal lands into public land trusts as follows:
The trusts themselves will enjoy budgets of about $2.5 billion per year. While this is less than half of their current annual budgets, a huge percentage of those budgets are absorbed by higher levels of the bureaucracy--state, regional, and Washington offices--that will largely disappear under this proposal. Given the incentive, on-the-ground managers should find ways to increase fees and reduce costs.
A few units of the National Park System--primarily historic sites that receive very few visitors today--will have a hard time making it under this system. These are mainly areas that probably should never have been made national parks in the first place. A process might be created to simply turn these areas over to state or local agencies or non-profit groups.
Not only will this system reduce environmental problems, it will reduce environmental controversies. Rather than shrilly debate public land management, environmental groups and land users will have an incentive to cooperate with one another. Instead of opposing all livestock grazing, wildlife supporters may negotiate reductions in grazing with ranchers. Instead of appealing timber sales, wilderness advocates will bid on them using wilderness permit fees. Instead of opposing all mining or oil & gas drilling, endangered species advocates will use biodiversity trust funds to ensure that such mining or drilling is sensitive to other resources.
My name is Randal, and I am a subsidized public land user. I am willing to give up my subsidies provided all other public land users give up their subsidies.When presented in this way, this proposal gains the support of a wide range of environmental and user groups, including ranchers, timber purchasers, recreationists, and wildlife advocates. With this broad support and Congress' current willingness to consider new ideas, it should be possible to resolve these issues.
The land trusts I have proposed may not be the only way to solve public land issues. But they are the best way I have found and one that is also politically feasible since they maintain all of the goals of public lands that we cherish--such as multiple use and sustainability--without any of the current problems.
Randal O'Toole, Reforming the Forest Service (Covelo, CA: Island Press, 1988), 248 pp: flaws in the national forest budgeting process.
"Reforming the Western Range," Different Drummer (Spring, 1994): flaws in the budgetary process for public land grazing.
"Tarnished Jewels: The Case for Reforming the Park Service," Different Drummer (Winter, 1995): flaws in the national park budgeting process; projections for national park budgets under a user-fee driven system.
"State Lands and Resources," Different Drummer (Summer, 1995): survey of state fish & wildlife, park, and forest agencies; problems with state land management.
"Reinventing the Forest Service," Different Drummer (Spring, 1995): problems with national forest management, projections of national forest, national park, national fish & wildlife refuge, and BLM district receipts and costs under a user-fee driven system.
Different Drummer is published by the Thoreau Institute.