Congress must investigate federal public lands management, waste and abuse

February 2, 2016

The Federal Government’s Poor Management of America’s Land Resources

Conserving America’s land resources has been a federal concern since President Theodore Roosevelt made it a national priority more than 100 years ago. The objective was not just to conserve and protect the environment, but also to enhance the quality of life for Americans and improve the use of natural resources. Today, however, federal land management policy has strayed far from President Roosevelt’s vision. Instead, Washington has implemented a command-and-control approach that wastes valuable financial resources and at times is environmentally harmful.

The federal government now owns one-third of the land in the United States.2 Four federal agencies–the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and National Park Service–are tasked with managing most of this land3 with combined annual budgets of $8.1 billion for fiscal year (FY) 1999. But as recent reports by the federal government’s own watchdogs point out, these agencies are not doing a good job. For example:

  • The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) reported that the cost of eliminating the agencies’ reported backlog of maintenance problems on public land exceeds $12 billion.4

  • The Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Agriculture found serious accounting and financial reporting deficiencies in the Forest Service, including “pervasive errors” in data supporting “land, buildings, equipment, accounts receivable, and accounts payable.”5

  • A Congressional Research Service analyst found that a 1996 GAO study did not use a General Services Administration analysis of the amount of land each agency managed because of discrepancies between the GSA’s numbers and those reported by the other four agencies.6

  • The Congressional Budget Office observed in April 1999 that in many instances, the National Park Service, the Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management find it difficult to maintain and finance operations on their existing land holdings…. [E]nvironmental objectives such as habitat protection and access to recreation might be best met by improving management in currently held areas, rather than providing minimal management over a larger domain.7

Such internal management problems, coupled with federal environmental regulations, undermine the efforts of federal land managers to care for public land under their oversight. Yet both President Bill Clinton and Congress have proposed establishing trust funds to purchase even more federal land which then would fall under these agencies’ control.

As far back as 1818, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Bevans that a state’s right to control property within its borders was an essential part of its sovereignty. Despite this precedent, however, these new proposals would override both state sovereignty and private property rights.

  • President Clinton’s Land Legacy Initiative would establish a $1.3 billion trust fund for new federal and state land acquisitions, which includes $450 million for federal land acquisition and $580 million for state and local government land acquisitions.8 This amounts to an increase of 125 percent over the federal funds available in the 1999 budget.9

  • The Conservation and Reinvestment Act of 1999 (H.R. 701) would direct about $900 million to the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF)–$378 million for federal land acquisitions, $378 million for state land acquisitions, and $144 million for local governments’ Urban Parks and Recreation Recovery programs. A companion bill (S. 25) has been introduced in the Senate. Unlike the Land Legacy Initiative, the congressional legislation would transform the LWCF into a “dedicated fund” that, by design, would allow federal agencies to bypass the scrutiny of the annual appropriations process and congressional oversight.

As the Framers of the Constitution understood, people care most about the environment in which they live, and the level of government closest to the people is the most effective at implementing policies that promote conservation of land while respecting property rights. These current proposals, however, would enhance the federal government’s appetite for, and its ability to own and manage even more of the nation’s lands, reducing even further the amount of private property owned by individual Americans. Thus, they run counter to America’s constitutional legacy.


Today, the federal government cannot account fully for the quantity and condition of the land it owns. Congress’s first step should be to initiate a thorough investigation of the federal government’s current land holdings and land management activities. In addition, a new federal land management policy should be developed that is based on the core American principles of conservation, federalism, and property rights.

To that end, Congress should ensure that the federal government manages only public land possessing unique historic, recreational, or biological qualities. Privatizing land that should not be under government control would both ease the financial burden that inappropriate federal holdings inflict on taxpayers and the U.S. Treasury and encourage local interest and investment in conserving America’s land resources.

Congress also should consider devolving to the states ownership of land that does not meet the criteria for federal ownership and is not suitable for privatization. State and local governments generally have managed public land efficiently and with greater responsiveness to local needs and interests. If their money had to pass first through Washington’s land management bureaucracies, however, it is not certain that this would continue.

The implementation of policies that allow the federal government to own only land of truly national interest would accomplish two essential goals: It would enable federal land managers to focus their efforts and resources on protecting America’s greatest national treasures, and it would ensure the long-term conservation of America’s natural resources for future generations.


Although the goal of preserving land for posterity is noble, the true impact of current federal land management policy should not be lost behind a cloud of good intentions. In 1996, the General Accounting Office reported that the federal government owned a staggering 650 million acres, or one-third of the land in the United States.10 The Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service manage about 95 percent of this land11 (approximately 618 million acres, or about 7,500 acres per employee).12 As of September 1994, these agencies also had obtained rights-of-use to over 3 million acres on nonfederal land through leases, agreements, permits, and easements.13

The Clinton Administration and several Members of Congress hope to enable the federal government to purchase even more land, which would then be placed under the management of these agencies. This effort by the federal government is not new:

  • Between 1964 and 1993, the number of acres managed by the four federal agencies increased in 46 states and decreased only in Alaska, Idaho, New Mexico, and Utah.14

  • At the end of FY 1993, the four federal agencies managed over 50 percent of the land in five states and over 25 percent of the land in an additional seven states.15

  • Excluding two large land transfers in Alaska, the total amount of land managed by the four federal land management agencies between 1964 through 1993 increased by about 34 million acres.16

  • The four agencies acquired control of about 203,000 acres in FY 1994.17

  • In certain Western states and localities, the federal government owns the vast majority of land. For example, it owns more than 86 percent of the land in Nevada, 67.9 percent in Utah, 67 percent in Alaska, and 65.2 percent in Idaho.18

  • The Department of the Interior’s budget for FY 2000 includes $295 million in land acquisition funds for 610,000 new acres.19

  • California is expected to lose over 445,000 acres to the federal government in FY 2000.20

With few exceptions, the amount of land managed by the four federal land management agencies has increased, primarily through the expansion of existing national forests, wildlife refuges, and parks or through the creation of new ones. The proposals of the President and Congress would enable the federal government to spend up to $1.3 billion annually for federal and state land acquisitions, even though the federal land management agencies lack accountability and their track record can be characterized as poor.

Percentage of State Managed by the Federal Government


In an April 1999 report, the Congressional Budget Office proposed placing a ten-year moratorium on future appropriations for land acquisitions by land management agencies.21Proponents of this option argue that these agencies should improve their stewardship of the land they already manage before taking on additional management responsibilities.

To facilitate their oversight of the preservation and protection of federal public lands, Members of Congress reasonably would expect the land management agencies to provide such information as the total amount of land managed, where it is located, the particular needs of each tract, and how these needs are reflected in agency performance goals, funding requests, programming, and staffing. In addition, under the Government Performance and Results Act, Congress expects agencies to match their performance goals with specific activities and to be held accountable for their results. The inability of federal land management agencies to provide Congress or the American public with an accurate accounting of the public lands under their control, in addition to their large backlog of maintenance problems, clearly indicates that these agencies are not performing as they should be.

Read the full analysis HERE!

Reposted by  2/2/16

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