by Olivia K. Foster Rhoades

On December 4th, President Trump declared both the Bears Ears National Monument and the Grand Staircase-Escalante would be reduced by 1 million acres each–an unprecedented change in federal land policy. As we near the end of 2017, four more monuments totaling 12.3 million acres in size have been slated for reduction. To put that in perspective, the state of Massachusetts is 5 million acres in size. Given the often-conflicting forces of environmental conservatism and resource usage, what is the best path toward a balanced United States land management policy? Our goal should be to weigh short-term potential for economic gain against long-term environmental loss.  First, we will address the recent history of United States land management and subsequently discuss the  potential rewards and consequences of possible policy changes.

Multiple-use and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act

As expected from its name, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act dictates modern public land management policy. In 1976, the FLPMA declared that all lands within the public domain as of 1976 would become permanent federal lands. Moreover, these lands were to be managed for ‘multiple-use’, which is defined as “management of the public lands and their various resource values so that they are utilized in the combination that will best meet the present and future needs of the American people.” In practice, this means federal land must be managed such that preservation, recreation, and resource development are balanced for future generations.

Figure 1: Map of the United States federal land. The majority of the 640 million acres of federal land is concentrated in the western States due to the history of the United State’s border expansion. The amount of public land varies between states with 84.5% Nevada being federally owned whereas only 1.9% of Massachusetts is federally managed. The four majority-landholder agencies are shown in bold.

The United States is 2.3 billion acres in size, and almost a third (640 million acres) is federally owned and mostly concentrated in the western states (Figure 1). Two federal departments manage the majority of the federal land: the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture. Land management within the Department of the Interior is comprised of three agencies: the the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service, whereas the Department of Agriculture’s land management arm is comprised of the National Forest Service (Figure 2). Each agency balances the multiple-use principle, but each also has different responsibilities and areas of focus. In particular, the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service predominantly focus on land preservation, environmental conservation, and recreation, whereas the National Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management concentrate on managing resource usage on federal land.

Figure 2: Four agencies manage over 91% of all federal land. Agencies within the Department of the Interior (DOI) maintain over two-thirds of the United State’s federal land, with the Bureau of Land Management overseeing the majority. The National Forest Service, which is the second largest federal land manager is within the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture. The remaining 9% of federal land is managed by either the agencies within the DOI (Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Reclamation) or the Department of Defense.

The largest of these agencies, the Bureau of Land Management, leases public land to private industries for resource usage (such as for oil drilling or mining), and it is the only agency that can also sell public land, thus leading to land privatization.

Public versus private: The land management debate

The responsibility of federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management is to weigh the economic benefits of land usage against the goals of environmental conservation. Arguments for and against land privatization rely on differing sets of priorities. Those in favor of land privatization tend to argue for the potential economic benefits whereas those against land privatization focus on environmentalism and the conservation of the American rural aesthetic.

Arguments in favor of privatization believe public lands are mismanaged and with proper management would generate more revenue. By divesting the public lands, some argue that the landowners could use their land as they see fit, either allowing for greater resource development or stricter environmental restrictions.  However, given that Exxon Mobil is worth $246.2 billion, and the oldest American conservation group, the Sierra Club, has a total revenue of $46 million, it would be difficult to ensure sales for economic gains and environmental protections are equally weighed.

An alternative to privatization argues for the transfer of federal land to the states. The argument is based on data that suggests state land trusts yield significantly higher revenue than federal land. State land trusts mandate the generation of financial returns, and states are not required to follow the multiple-use doctrine. As a result, public recreational use often incurs fees. However, economists disagree whether the sales of federal land to states would benefit or burden them. One 2014 study by the University of the Utah suggested that the sale of federal land in Utah to the state of Utah would result in a $280 million burden to the state. Notably, not all anti-public land sentiment is economically based. Some citizens of western states believe the federally owned land is being held hostage by Washington. The most recent example of this sentiment was when Ammon and Ryan Bundy led an armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to protest restrictions on federal land in 2016. Whereas the economic argument can be evaluated academically, the ‘states’ rights’ argument is based in legal precedents and is more difficult to test.

The argument for the conservation of federally-managed public lands is based on centralizing the financial burden of land management and supporting interstate environmentalism. Using the management of invasive species as an example, the federal government spends $120 billion to mitigate and control non-native plants and animals that would otherwise harm the environment, agriculture, or human health. As invasive species can cross state lines, a coordinated approach is necessary for a streamlined, cost-effective strategy. Furthermore, the conservation of public lands can provide areas for endangered species to flourish and allow for long-term biological studies.

Is the current federal land management sustainable?

Notably, federally managed public lands do allow for some economic contributions that are sustainable. For example, timber from federal forests creates over $160 billion in revenue yearly. The National Forest Service has a number of indicators to monitor whether logging on public lands is sustainable. By making some forests protected and allowing logging in others, the NFS has found that there is no evidence that we are ‘using up’ our forests; however, particular unsustainable logging practices like clear-cutting do threaten wildlife and the water supply. Alternatively, renewable energy sources are also being approved and implemented on public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management, which could provide a new source of economic revenue for public lands.

How might land management further change under the Trump Administration?

The 2-million acre rollback of Bears Ears and the Grand-Staircase Escalante announced by President Trump will expand development, oil leasing, and mineral mining in the previously federally protected lands. However, this legally unprecedented move is not without opposition. The Navajo Nation, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian, and Pueblo of Zuni have sued the Trump administration. They are arguing that the U.S. Antiquities Act does not allow a president to revoke or modify a National Monument, only create one. If the lawsuit wins, National Monument boundaries would be cemented, but if they lose, future presidents could drastically shrink any previously protected areas.

What’s the punchline?

The United States federal land management allows for flexibility in federal land use, and it is up to elected officials to decide how the land will be used. As citizens of the United States, we must ask what our priorities are, and what the best way to manage our land is to truly encapsulate the American dream. There isn’t a clear answer, and solutions will require nüance and land-specific policies. We should seek compromises that satisfy lumberjacks, archeologists, ranchers, and environmentalists. It is in our hands (and ballots) to preserve our resources for future generations of Americans.

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Olivia K. Foster Rhoades is a PhD candidate in Biological and Biomedical Sciences at Harvard University.

This article was written in collaboration with the Harvard Science Policy Group.

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