Federal land management

The Case Against the Case for Federal Land Management

A new book throws red meat to "public land advocates," but its arguments leave a lot to be desired.


In Defense of Public Lands: The Case Against Privatization and Transfer, by Steven Davis, Temple University Press, 294 pages, $29.95

The writer Wallace Stegner once described the American West's historic relationship with the federal government as "go away, and give us more money." Under the Clinton and Obama administrations, D.C.'s assertions of authority were onerous enough for some Western states, such as Utah, to start doubting that the money was worth it. The Trump years may have restored the historic pattern. Recently departed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke insisted that public lands remain under federal ownership, but he also wanted federal actions—including the feds' ample funding—to be based on Western states' wishes.

But potential fault lines between those states and the feds still exist. Consider the case of the California wildfires.

In 2017, 1.4 percent of California lands burned as wildland fires raged across the state, often with devastating consequences. The fire damage of 2018 was even worse.

Nineteen million acres of California forests—almost 20 percent of the state's total land area—are owned and managed by the federal government. The fires are in significant part the product of past federal forest mismanagement.

The Forest Service policy of total fire suppression, in place for most of the 20th century, meant California's national forests contained large volumes of kindling-like small trees and underbrush. Before the Forest Service embarked on its crusade to suppress them, frequent but much smaller fires routinely removed these "excess fuels" while leaving the larger trees little affected.

Federal land management agencies remain mired in gridlock and dysfunction. This past summer, the Forest Service itself acknowledged that "catastrophic wildfires and the corresponding loss of lives, homes, and natural resources have continued to grow, partly because our treatments have been uncoordinated and not at the right scale."

One might reasonably expect California to pursue the ownership of most federal lands in the state—not national parks and national wilderness areas, but the lands needed to get its catastrophic forest fire situation under control. So far, however, the logic of the situation has been unable to overcome the state government's commitment to federal land ownership as a symbol of "progressive" rectitude.

Deeply unhappy with wider developments at the federal level, some Californians have recently been declaring an interest in the radical step of outright state secession. Taking ownership of large parts of the federally owned lands would be a much more constitutionally doable and politically promising way to "secede."

Such issues raise fundamental issues of constitutional federalism. The government in Washington, D.C., owns more than 80 percent of Nevada, 65 percent of Utah, 62 percent of Idaho, 61 percent of Alaska, 53 percent of Oregon, 48 percent of Wyoming, and almost as high percentages in other Western states. The rural areas of such states typically consist of a sea of federal land intermingled with patches of state and private land. Daniel Kemmis, a former leading figure in the Democratic Party in Montana, candidly describes the resulting relationship as "colonial."

It's a good moment for a book that would help sort out such conflicts. Unfortunately, Steven Davis' In Defense of Public Lands is not that book.

Davis, a political scientist at Edgewood College, has read widely in the literature of public lands, but his research method is to cherry-pick whatever he can find that he thinks will advance his organizing thesis: that any attempts to change the existing federal land system, either by privatization or by transferring large plots to the states, reflect the thinking of narrow-minded ideologues.

He calls these ideologues "privatizers," which means he is attacking a straw man: Academic arguments for privatizing federal lands certainly exist, but they have had little impact on public debate. The Reagan administration did briefly flirt with privatization, but it quickly abandoned the idea when it saw that it had almost no support even among Western conservative Republicans. What most Westerners want is open access to the immense public lands that surround them.

When Republicans in the Utah legislature passed a 2013 measure demanding a sharp cutback of the vast federal land presence, they expressly stated that their goal was to maintain the transferred lands in public ownership; it's just that the lands would be held and managed by the state, not by agencies headquartered on the far side of the country. They also specified that the federal government should retain ownership of the national parks and national wilderness areas. As a result, Washington would continue to hold about 8 percent of Utah.

If Davis insists on defining privatization to include policies that do not involve putting public lands in private hands, then the word could apply as easily to some ideas he endorses. He praises, for example, recent efforts to measure and charge for "ecosystem services"—that is, benefits from natural systems that historically have not been marketed, such as the water flows in rivers that support fish populations. To pay for such things (by, say, selling water rights reserved for fishing) is privatization by another name.

Another contradiction emerges when Davis makes an anxious attempt to refute the argument that federal land management is "elitist." But he acknowledges elsewhere in the book that much of the control over such lands since the 1970s has been driven by lawsuits filed by environmental organizations, a development he welcomes. Surely land management by federal judges is a form of elite control.

We can compare federal vs. state land management in actual practice, because 21 percent of New Jersey, 16 percent of Florida, 14 percent of New York and Pennsylvania, 13 percent of Michigan, and 11 percent of Minnesota consist of state-owned lands. Here Davis has some sensible things to say. He writes that "at the state and local levels, insulated as they are from lawsuits, participation requirements, biocentric laws, and progressive hiring policies," it is possible to achieve a "resource management-based professionalism [that] can actually flourish in a more pristine form" than at the federal level.

By pristine, he means the traditional pursuit of "multiple-use and sustained yield" scientific management—emphasizing the use of federal lands for human benefit—that was replaced in the 1990s at the federal level by "eco-system management." The latter approach, which is skeptical of technocratic expertise, attempts to "restore" land to a condition preceding the large human impacts that followed European settlement.

In reality, the effort to implement the fuzzy if not inchoate ideas underlying ecosystem management simply led to greater dysfunction. By 2002, the Forest Service desperately sought relief. The agency warned in a report that it was beset by a "costly procedural quagmire" created by the "statutory, regulatory, and administrative framework" at the federal level—and that was keeping it "from effectively addressing rapid declines in forest health."

No help was forthcoming. One result is that fire prevention and suppression rose from 15 percent of the Forest Service budget in the mid-1990s to 50 percent today.

Yet these management problems do not seem to shake Davis' deep faith in federal capabilities. His "progressive" identity—his religion, really—simply overrides the empirical realities.

For all its limits as a public policy investigation, this book may still be a useful case study in the rise of secularized versions of bitter religious strife. Davis accidentally illustrates how public debate can devolve into disagreements in which people who hold opposing viewpoints make little effort to offer well-researched facts, to develop careful arguments, or to be fair to the other side. Instead, they throw red meat to the faithful by presenting policy questions as epic struggles between good and evil—in this case, between "public land advocates" and "privatizers."