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Below-cost management hurts public lands

In promoting the transfer of public land to state control, Dave Menicucci refers to a study by the Property and Environment Research Center, which alleges that state controlled land generates $14.51 per dollar spent while the feds lose money for the same dollar. Even acknowledging the likely bias of the study’s authors (PERC’s Koch-funded mission is to “Show that private property rights … are the best way to preserve nature and natural resources for future generations”), these numbers are impressive. In the absence of context, however, they tell us almost nothing about how states manage land.

Reviewing the study, a reasonable person might wonder whether state dollars are in truth better spent or just not spent at all

Navajo Lake State Park, which includes the San Juan quality waters, draws anglers from everywhere on earth. Hordes of visitors spend at least $5 per vehicle per day to fish these waters, but the state won’t invest in the types of infrastructure – a concrete boat ramp at the takeout, sun-sheltered lunch spots, bankside chemical toilets for female anglers – that one would associate with such a premium recreational resource.

Bluewater Lake State Park, a nationally renowned tiger musky fishery whose annual visitation has grown in leaps and bounds, has serious problems with buoy and dock maintenance and enforcement of regulations.

Elsewhere in the state, we see grass grazed to dirt and roads eroded to the point of barring access to desired destinations. In case after case, it appears increasingly certain that what states actually excel at is not managing land.

Still, a $14.51 return shouldn’t be taken lightly. For years, I’ve fantasized that economically and ecologically sustainable revenue generation from public lands would someday become a national priority, and there have been concerted attempts to make this dream come true.

Alas, these efforts – to raise grazing and recreational use fees, mining and energy royalties, to end below-cost timber sales, along with other wise moves – have always met with fierce resistance from many of the interests now complaining about public lands losing money.

These interests and their pals on Capitol Hill have also worked tirelessly to defund land agencies to the point where any number of priorities – timber, energy, minerals, grass, recreation, access, water production and filtration, fish and wildlife, fire safety – are almost impossible to optimize. Consequently, we might blame these bad-faith actors for the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process being so arduous, if not for the law itself.

For NEPA was simply a regulatory response to the most rapacious extractive practices of the past. In fact, if one really studies the land grab cult, it becomes clearer that it was they who bought this thing – land and management in its current sorry state – that they no longer want to own.

Sure, inadequate thinning and prescribed burning by the Forest Service contributes to wildfire risk, but so has clear-cutting, rogue and poorly planned roads and real estate encroachment. Grazing cutbacks aren’t only the result of those zany, clean air and water-loving environmentalists, but of hoof shear, eroding headcuts and drought.

In a way, I’m pleased that it’s come to this, that subsidizing private enterprise (really, that’s what below-cost management has amounted to all these years) has finally given way to a spirit of generating profits for reinvestment and local stewardship. No matter who controls the land, the feds or the state, I’m sure it will be easy to cram fee increases down the throats of the guiding, livestock, energy and mineral extraction, and timber industries.

It would, after all, be in the greater public interest, and I’m sure that all users will be delighted for the chance to participate.

And if you believe that, the State Land Office has a sweet land swap near White’s Peak that they’d love you to sign off on. Seriously, the deal’s a steal.