“Transfer of Public Lands,” or TPL, is a term that is starting to resonate with many Americans, including some Republican presidential hopefuls, like U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and even former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Supporters of the TPL movement are growing in number as a news cycle peppered with accounts of federal incompetence is reinforcing the message that public lands and resources are best managed by the states.
The concept of TPL is simple: the 60+ percent of western lands tied up by federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and others, will be transferred to state governments to be managed by equivalent state agencies accountable to state legislators and citizens. The map below, produced by the BLM, contrasts federal ownership of land between states east and west of the Continental Divide.
The “transfer of public lands” movement started a few years ago is gaining ground in states out West where state records on land management are shining.
Watchdog Arena reported in October on record wildfires this year, amounting to over 9.4 million acres burned across the country with the highest concentration occurring out West. Greg Walcher, the former Colorado Secretary of Natural Resources told Watchdog Arena that, to a degree, federal management policies such as “no-logging” regulations are to blame for overgrown forests, dead and dying vegetation, and beetle-killed trees that have contributed to recent massive forest fires on federally managed lands.
Walcher is not alone in his assessment.
A recent article by Rebecca Beitsch in the PEW Charitable Trusts’ Stateline questions the effectiveness of D.C.-based management, citing frustrations with federal agencies which now control immense regions of public lands in the West. “In particular,” Beitsch writes, “many question the federal government’s commitment to preventing natural disasters like forest fires.”
As bungling and conflicts between federal agencies and states escalate, the idea that management of lands and resources should be left up to the states is growing in popularity with politicians and citizens alike.
With humble beginnings in Utah just a few years ago, the TPL movement is gaining traction. Utah, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and a number of other states have considered or passed legislation demanding the federal government dispose public lands back to the states under “enabling acts.”
The Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office explains that historically, each new state added to the union has an enabling act which is a compact with the federal government to dispose of its land holdings in those states in order to pay off federal debt and encourage settlement and prosperity through giving access to the natural resources in those states.
TPL legislation excludes those treasures which are considered to belong, collectively, to the people of the United States such as national parks, national monuments, tribal lands, Department of Defense properties, and specifically designated wilderness areas.
The processes for wrestling control of public lands away from federal agencies vary from state to state. Stateline contrasts the effort in Utah, which requires the outright transfer of public lands and management authority to the state, with Colorado, where counties are given a place at the federal table in planning and decision making. ThePEW report details:
Colorado is one of the states at the forefront of this new approach. This year, state lawmakers there approved $1 million in grants for counties that want to influence federal land use decisions. County leaders can use the money to hire consultants to evaluate data, provide scientific research or attend BLM coordination meetings. The law authorizing the grants also requires state agencies to provide additional expertise and assistance to counties when they ask for it.
Despite the progress being made in the TPL movement, detractors cite practical, fiscal, and constitutional issues with exclusive state management of public lands where, for the last 60 years, the federal government has reigned supreme.
RELATED: Horror in the forest: Wildfires leave their mark on 9.4 million acres
One legal analysis produced by the University of Utah claims TPL is unconstitutional, too expensive for states, and would lead to damaging development of public lands.
But not all legal experts share in academia’s opinion.
“I believe it is clear that the Founding Fathers did not intend for the federal government to own one-third of the nation’s landmass,” said William Perry Pendley, an attorney with the Mountain States Legal Foundation and an expert in federal public lands law, in an interview with Watchdog Arena. “Instead, they intended that all the land within each new state would be disposed to the state government, or sold.”
“Illinois provides a perfect example; a little less than two centuries ago, 99 percent of Illinois was owned by the federal government; today less than 1.4 percent of the state is federally owned,” said Pendley.
“States would manage these lands more prudently, cost-effectively, and successfully,” Pendley told Watchdog Arena when asked about the cost and practicality of transferring management of public lands to the states, which have fewer fiscal resources than the federal government.
A chart from a March 2015 report published by the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), a Montana-based non-profit dedicated to preserving the environment through property rights and free markets, compares revenues vs. expenses on state and federally managed lands:
“States cannot afford to manage State-owned lands the way the federal government manages federal lands,” explained Pendley.
“No sane land manager would allow his timber to burn up, or rich natural resources to remain in the ground, or roads to be closed that provide access to his property. But that is what the federal government does to the detriment of taxpayers and the citizens of the West.”