The American public owns all federal public lands, including National Parks, National Forests, Wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers, and wildlife preserves. Every American has a personal stake and a guaranteed say in how these places are cared for, and the right to experience and enjoy these places.
The federal government owns roughly 640 million acres, about 28% of the 2.27 billion acres of land in the United States. Four agencies administer 610 million acres of this land: the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and National Park Service (NPS) in the Department of the Interior (DOI), and the Forest Service (FS) in the Department of Agriculture. The rest is administered by the Department of Defense and numerous other agencies.
Throughout America’s history, federal land laws have reflected two visions: keeping some lands in federal ownership while disposing of others. From the earliest days, there has been conflict between these two visions. During the 19Th century, many laws encouraged settlement of the West through federal land disposal. But in the 20Th century, emphasis shifted to retention of federal lands.
In April 2013, the Idaho Legislature approved House Resolution 22 demanding a transfer of 83% of all federally-administered public lands in Idaho; and has continued to pursue this expensive and fruitless attempt since.
Idaho has 34 million acres of land in federal (public) ownership; that is roughly 60% of all state lands. At statehood, Idaho was granted roughly four million acres from the federal government. Since then, Idaho has sold approximately 1.7 million acres of its state lands to corporations or other private interests—41% of its original territory. This means that on average, Idaho has sold off 13,500 acres per year. The most common buyers of these state lands: timber companies and livestock interests.
The only way you have access to most of Texas is if you are wealthy enough to buy your access for hunting, fishing and camping. In Idaho, you don’t need to be wealthy to have rights to access land, and that’s the way Idahoans like it. A poll commissioned by the Idaho Outdoor Business Council showed that 97% of Idaho voters say that public lands are an essential part of Idaho’s quality of life.
Representative Raul Labrador has also proposed a bill that would allow state and county government control of federally owned lands. Labrador’s proposed Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act would allow swaths of at least 200,000 acres, and up to 900,000 acres of federal lands to be administered locally for timber harvest and revenue generation.
State Lands vs. Federal Lands
Public lands are public whether they are federally or state owned, right? Not exactly. State lands are held by state governments to generate revenue; it is not owned by state residents in the same way as federal public lands, and they are not owned at all by Americans who live in other states. While many states do a fantastic job of managing state parks and protecting recreation, state lands are not public, and are governed by different rules than federal public lands. You don’t have a right to be on state lands, or the same rights to have input in how they are managed and sold.
The Idaho Department of Lands mission clearly explains, “We manage more than 2.4 million acres of state endowment trust land under a Constitutional mandate to maximize long term financial returns to a number of State institutions, mainly public schools.”
If it makes short-term economic sense for a state to lease a bunch of its land for mineral development, subdivisions, extraction, or logging, states are within their rights to do so. States do not have an obligation to involve state residents in these decisions. Does this impact people’s right to these places? It’s simply not relevant when most states have to balance their budgets. While we are all owners on federal public lands, we are customers on state lands.
Federally owned public lands, owned and managed by all Americans, are the backbone of a $646 billion outdoor recreation economy, millions of jobs, and thriving local economies in the west. Hunting alone in Idaho’s national forests, BLM lands and national wildlife refuges is worth $478 million to the state’s economy (according to Idaho Department of Fish and Game). Outdoor recreation and other activities generate $6.3 billion for Idaho annually in consumer spending (according to the Outdoor Industry Association).
A report from the Conservation Economics Institute found that the state’s takeover of federal public lands would cost the state of Idaho $1 billion in the first 5 years and more than $2 billion after 20 years. It would immediately cost the state almost 2,500 federal jobs, mostly in rural communities, and about $10 million in state income tax. Such losses would necessitate the sale of large swaths of land, something Idahoans have routinely objected to.
Putting aside policy, the fact that we own public lands is part of the experience on public lands. Each American is a shareholder on these mountains, rivers, deserts, and forests. All Americans enjoy these places, and all Americans share the costs to preserve these places. On average, each American pays about $4 a year in income tax for public lands. If these places were transferred to the states, their governments and taxpayers would be solely responsible for managing upkeep, infrastructure, building roads, and fighting fires.