A movement is afoot to transfer federally managed public lands to the states. Environmentalists characterize it as a right-wing land seizure that would allow our public spaces to be trashed by greedy exploiters, such as rogue miners, off-road vehicle abusers and other deleterious actors.
In reality, it is pure Americana. People from both sides of the political divide have concluded that our federal land managers have so mismanaged our public properties that they should be replaced. A bill in the last New Mexico legislative session called for a committee to study the possible transfer of federal lands to state control. The bill was tabled but will return next year. Transfer bills are advancing in Arizona and Idaho. Related legislation has been approved in Utah and the U.S. Senate.
The U.S. Forest Service is an example of federal mismanagement. After more than a century of USFS oversight, it is observably clear that the vast majority of our western forests are either burned-out hulks – a result of devastating wildfire fueled by overgrowth – or tinderboxes awaiting a spark.
The USFS created this situation in the early 1990s when it began to reduce timber harvesting while simultaneously resuming the suppression of wildfires. Properly structured timber harvesting programs as well as the allowance of fires are both sustainable forest management techniques. But for 25 years we have had essentially neither. The USFS’s publicly-funded forest thinning efforts and prescribed burns are so feeble relative to the magnitude of the problem that they are almost pointless.
The mismanagement problem includes economics as well as access issues. The Property and Environment Research Center, an environmental think tank in Montana, recently studied the economic performance of federally managed lands in four western states, including New Mexico. It found that while these states earn an average of $14.51 for every dollar they spend on their state lands, the feds lose 27 cents. On average the states earn many times more than the feds for similar activities; seven times more on timber and energy development, 35 times more on grazing, and 25 times more on recreation. In New Mexico, the potential lost revenue is over $800 million. The report is found at www.perc.org/DividedLands.
Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management and USFS have been restricting motorized access on public lands. Certainly, all of our public lands require protection from abuse, such as willy-nilly off-road travel or destructive logging.
In the mid-2000s the USFS initiated the Travel Management program, which was designed to close useless or redundant roads. But it was taken too far. The Santa Fe National Forest, for example, had identified numerous TM closure options, including some reasonable ones. But in 2012, Santa Fe officials implemented the most extreme TM option, closing nearly two-thirds of all forest roads, many of which had been used for generations by ranchers, hunters, anglers and forest-product gatherers.
The mobility-limited community, the fastest growing forest user group, was hit hard. This group comprises seniors, wounded veterans, disabled or infirm people, paraplegics and others who need a standard motor vehicle to access and enjoy their public lands. While hikers now claim exclusive use of areas they previously shared with other citizens, almost every mobility-limited user can cite at least one traditional area that is now closed to them.
When the federal government treats folks with disrespect, it engenders deep-seated resentment from across the political spectrum. Many offended people are speaking to their political representatives.
The transfer of federal lands to states is but one of several possible solutions to the mismanagement problem. In 2013, Robert Nelson, a University of Maryland professor, proposed the concept of “charter forests,” in which localities would use federal funds to manage adjacent public lands. In 2012 the National Council for Public-Private Partnerships formally proposed public-private arrangements as another approach.
We should expect a high standard of performance from our public-land managers. And if they fail to perform, they should expect to be replaced.
Dave Menicucci is retired and a lifelong resident of New Mexico. He owns properties in the Jemez Mountains.