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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Jun 03 2016

Seven Reasons Not to Transfer Our Public Lands

The costs are just the beginning


As privately funded think tanks and radical politicians continue to promote the idea of transferring ownership and management of American public lands to individual states, it’s important to fully consider the significant consequences that land transfer would have on our economy and our enjoyment our public lands.

It's hard to predict the breadth of changes that would occur if 640 million acres of American public land were split up among 50 states and further divided into various state-based managing agencies, each with a different mission, staff, and budget. But there’s one thing we can count on: America’s tradition of managing national public lands “for the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run” would come to an end, and our national access to critical resources such as clean water, clear skies, abundant wildlife, and backcountry trails would be altered beyond recognition if transferred to state management.

Here’s a closer look at six major changes that Montana residents could expect if the 27 million acres of American public lands in Big Sky Country were transferred to state ownership. 

1. Overwhelming rise in management costs for Montana taxpayers

The most immediate and obvious consequence of transferring lands would be a shift in the financial responsibility for management. Last year, reporters from the Billings Gazette, Helena Independent Record, and the Missoulian calculated how much transfer would cost Montanans. Their ballpark estimate, which factored in additional timber revenue, suggested that transfer would leave Montana with a $367 million annual deficit. Covering a deficit of that size would no doubt require dramatic changes in land management.

If this number sounds inflated, consider the costs of fire suppression and prevention, trail and property maintenance, and forest management and restoration on the roughly 27 million acres of federal lands in Montana. All of America’s 100 million-plus taxpayers currently cover those costs. If management or ownership of those millions of acres were transferred to the state, Montana’s roughly one million taxpayers would bear the brunt of these costs on their own.

Had that been the case in 2012, Montanans would have been on the hook for the $102 million it cost all American taxpayers to fight fires in our state. That number could very well increase as fire seasons lengthen.

2. Dramatic increase in resource extraction on public lands

If Montana ever stood a chance of affording the cost of managing 27 million additional acres of public land, the state would have to dramatically increase oil and gas development, mining, and logging. Timber and gas revenue from federal lands in Montana is currently around $84 million. Covering the cost of the deficit would require more than four times as much resource extraction without increasing costs. That’s assuming oil and gas prices remain constantly high. In 2011, the price of crude oil peaked at about $125 a barrel. In 2015, it dropped to $30 a barrel.

3. Enormous increases in user fees for recreation

The revenue that our federal government earns from recreation on public lands does not cover the associated management costs because profit is not the overarching motive for management of these lands. American taxpayers effectively subsidize recreation on our public lands because these lands are essential to our quality of life. As a result, we ensure that everyone, regardless of income, can afford to visit these special places. It’s part of the reason that so many of us do – two-thirds of Montanans visit our public lands more than six times per year.

And of course, just because these lands aren’t profitable for management agencies doesn’t mean they aren’t profitable. Public lands generate $5.8 billion in consumer spending in Montana each year (see number five).

If these lands were transferred to the states, along with all the associated costs described above, then recreation would need to pay its own way to remain a priority. To give you an idea of the scale of that cost, our state trust lands currently generate $1 million annually in revenue from recreation permit fees. At five times the size, with equal visitation rates and current state permit prices, federal lands would generate only $5 million from recreation, thus failing to put even a tiny dent in the total transfer deficit. Therefore, it’s not unreasonable to expect steep increases in user fees for visitors to all of our public lands. If recreation still could not compete financially with oil, gas, and timber, then we could expect to see a significant reduction in areas open for recreation. 

4. Sale of our public lands

Some transfer proponents claim they would never sell off our public lands. But given the enormity of the costs the state would face in managing these lands, it is almost certain that some of the transferred lands would be sold off to generate short-term revenue to fill the budget deficit and reduce maintenance load and ongoing costs to the state. While that result may sound far-fetched right now, the costs of transfer would create an economic situation in which sale of public lands would be the only economically feasible way to balance the budget.

5. Reduction in the economic contribution these lands make to our local communities

Much has been made of the fact that state lands generate more income than federal lands. In fact, the vast majority of our state lands, the “state trust lands,” are constitutionally required to produce a profit, and by and large, they do a good job of it.

American lands, in contrast, are managed for multiple uses and are required to balance resource extraction with other values, such as conservation and recreation. Consequently, when you measure the revenue our American lands generate directly for our federal agencies through goods such as timber, they often do not appear profitable.

But in fact, American lands are a huge economic driver and a boon to nearby communities. Outdoor recreation generates $1.5 billion just in wages and salaries in Montana and supports 64,000 jobs. American lands also attract new businesses – in a recent poll of business owners in Montana, our outdoor lifestyle was the largest factor in businesses’ decision to locate in Montana.

The revenue and jobs that outdoor recreation generates require the conservation and maintenance of places where people want to recreate. To cover the costs of management in a transfer scenario, our public lands would have to be managed in a way that would threaten their recreational value and actually deprive our communities of a valuable economic resource.

6. Loss of clean water and air

According to U.S. law, clean water is a primary purpose of our National Forests. American forests are critically important to the supply of clean drinking water in the U.S. One-hundred twenty-three million Americans rely on drinking water flowing from our national forests, and about 20 percent of the nation’s drinking-water supply comes from watersheds on national forests and grasslands.

Right now, our National Forests are required to protect air quality for public health and welfare. The U.S. government manages our forests to ensure that they remain the lungs of America, removing pollutants and releasing clean air for breathing.

Clean air and water are essential to human life, but they might not be as high of a priority for individual states, where 50 different state legislatures would have their say and 50 different state budgets would need to be balanced. Can we really trust that our forests will be managed to ensure clean air and water if our forests are broken up into more than 50 different parts?

7. Loss of our outdoor way of life

Our outdoor heritage – hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, and most other types of outdoor recreation – depends on having access to public lands. Because the state would be forced to sell off or industrialize our public lands, our outdoor way of life as we know it would be gone.

These are seven of the major consequences we could expect from land transfer, but a full list would be much, much longer. Management of Americans lands, like the management of any national resource, is complex and challenging, but transfer is not the answer. Instead we should be supporting and replicating the many successful collaborative projects happening on the ground every day right here in Montana, and we should fight to conserve these lands for the “greatest good of the greatest number in the long run”.

If you agree that our lawmakers should reject this outrageously risky idea and instead focus on advancing real local solutions that work, sign our petition and join our fight to protect our public lands.

- Kayje Booker, MWA public lands program manager