Privatize the Public Lands

Deborah Moeller

The federal government has owned and managed land in the United States almost since its inception. The Louisiana Purchase and the conquest of the West put huge tracts of land in its hands. Most of those lands have been sold or granted to states and to individuals, but many lands—one-third of the land area of the United States—still belong to the federal government. Those lands include natural wonders as well as vast, desolate, nearly valueless regions.

Does it make sense for the federal government to be the largest single landowner in the United States? A recent study by the Cato Institute, How and Why to Privatize Federal Lands, argues that it does not. The authors, Terry Anderson, Vernon Smith, and Emily Simmons, make the case that turning public lands over to private hands will not only save money but will protect critical land areas, and they lay out a creative plan for how it can be done.

Advocates for limited government and privatization have long argued for divestiture of federal lands, and environmental advocates have long decried any such idea. Federal land ownership is often defended with the argument that the federal government is the best steward of these lands, and if they were controlled privately, they would be exploited and ravaged.

It is no surprise that Anderson and company find that the National Park Service (NPS), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the three federal agencies that manage most federally owned land, all run multi-million dollar deficits every year. The NPS led the group, running deficits of over $1 billion each year from 1994 to 1996. All three groups receive income through fees, mining rights, logging rights, and other sources, but none of these revenues cover even 20 percent of expenditures. For the BLM and the NPS, they cover barely more than 5 percent.

That economic loss is worth it, say many conservationists, because these agencies are making sure public lands are protected and preserved for future generations. Alas, the authors of the Cato study reveal that this comforting belief is a myth. Among other things, they report that:

  • Sixty percent of the BLM’s grazing allotments were overgrazed in 1988, and the agency was doing nothing to correct the problem;
  • The overpopulation of elk and bison in Yellowstone National Park is causing a decline in the population of tall willows and aspens in the park, leading to long-term problems with beaver habitat and water systems;
  • Rocky Mountain National Park also has a problem with elk overpopulation, and it is exacerbated by fire suppression policies that have not allowed fires to play their ecological role. Together, these problems seriously threaten the diversity of wildlife in the park.

These negative impacts are often the result of competing interests, such as the tension between preservation and tourism in national parks, and the conflict between conservation and logging on forestlands. Public lands are invariably pulled in many directions, and no victory is ever final: “When the political winds shift, the battle will be fought again.”

Private ownership is the key, the authors argue, to financial solvency and ecological health for these lands. They point to the Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society as examples of private organizations that have been very successful in conserving lands. They also cite the success of for-profit owners of environmental amenities (Anderson, director of the Political Economy Research Center, describes many of these new conservationists in his book, Enviro-Capitalists: Doing Good while Doing Well). Private ownership allows the owners to have permanent and comprehensive control over the lands and resources in their care.

The idea of turning all public lands over to private hands is alarming to many conservationists, so the authors suggest the possibility that provisions could be built into the sales of lands that are considered “national treasures.” These provisions would ensure that the lands were preserved for their scenic beauty or wild character. The authors warn that it would be best for conservation-minded groups to build in those provisions themselves after buying the lands on the open market, allowing the “opportunity costs” of conservation to be borne privately rather than publicly. Private restrictive covenants can be legally binding for all owners in perpetuity. This should comfort conservationists, but free-market advocates might note that such restrictions could have potentially negative future effects on property value and use.

There are many more questions answered in the study, but one that is not answered is, “Why now?” Why is now the right time to begin privatizing public lands? There are two compelling answers: freedom, and ecological health. Any citizen in Southern Utah can tell you why the first answer is important. Many rural residents of the West have had their freedoms and livelihoods curtailed because of arbitrary changes to the status of public lands they have used for generations. As for the second answer, there is ample evidence that Americans care very much about the wild and scenic regions of this country, but there is little evidence that government stewardship has kept these lands in good condition. We should move these lands into private, responsible hands now rather than waiting for them to be damaged further.

Deborah E. Moeller is the director of publications for the Sutherland Institute, a Utah public policy research institute.