DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA — Chairman of the Federal Lands Action Group, Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), and Chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), hosted their third forum in a series aimed at exploring best practices with regard to public land management and ownership.
The forum included witnesses representing experts in the fields of public land policy. Witnesses presented testimony and answered questions from members of Congress in the action group.
“Times are tough in much of the rural West,” Stewart said in his opening remarks. “Recent events have illustrated that lands issues are contentious and getting more so. In our two previous forums we explored some of the problems in current federal land management and we raised several promising solutions for devolving control over public lands away from the federal government and to those closer to the lands. Today, we took a more detailed look at several of the ideas that have been raised in previous forums.”
Bishop blamed President Obama for the problems.
“As the President has unveiled his latest budget proposal, it is clear he is not interested in smart solutions,” Bishop said. “He continues to throw money into failed land management programs. This forum has demonstrated that, not only are there better ways to budget resources, but there are better ways to manage federal lands.”
Other witnesses spoke of mismanagement of public lands by the federal government.
“Federal control of public lands that rightfully should be under state administration has led to environmental and economic mismanagement,” Director of the American Legislative Exchange Council Task Force on International Relations and Federalism Karla Jones said. “It is encouraging, however, that the western states are petitioning for control, which will benefit the lands inside their borders and both their state economies and the national economy.”
Robert Nelson — a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, professor of environmental policy at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center — called the federal ownership of land in the West “environmentally damaging.”
“It is inhibiting the economic use of the lands and is also environmentally damaging — mismanaging the national forests, for example, to create unprecedented acreages of wildfires now burning at new intensities,” Nelson said. “The rural West is deprived of the normal experience of democratic governance as it is experienced in other states and localities across the United States. Broadly speaking, public land reform could move in three basic directions: privatization, transfer of federal lands to state and local governments, and management reforms within the existing system of federal land ownership.”
Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute said that the key resolving public land debates wasn’t an issue of ownership but rather the systems of governance and incentives guiding land managers.
“Two key reforms would resolve nearly all federal land debates,” O’Toole said. “First, federal land managers should be allowed to charge fair market value for all resources people use and should be funded exclusively out of a share of the receipts they collect. Second, federal lands should be turned into fiduciary trusts, which would fundamentally change the incentives faced by land managers.”
Representatives Stewart and Bishop launched the Federal Land Action Group in April 2015 as a congressional team that would develop a legislative framework for transferring public lands to local ownership and control, building on the work started by Utah and other states in recent years.
“The federal government has been a lousy landlord for western states and we simply think the states can do it better,” Stewart said. “If we want healthier forests, better access to public lands, more consistent funding for public education and more reliable energy development, it makes sense to have local control.”
Bishop said the group will explore the background of the lands to determine the best congressional action needed in order to return the lands to “the rightful owners.”
“We have assembled a strong team of lawmakers,” Bishop said, “and I look forward to formulating a plan that reminds the federal government it should leave the job of land management to those who know best.”
The Federal Land Action Group will hold a series of forums with experts on public lands policy, with the goal of introducing transfer legislation.
Members of the group include:
- Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) – Chairman of the Federal Land Action Group
- Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) – Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee
- Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.)
- Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.)
- Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.)
- Rep. Cresent Hardy (R-Nev.)
- Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY)
- Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho)
- Federal Land Action Group
- Past forums
- Karla Jones’ full testimony
- Robert Nelson’s full testimony
- Randall O’Toole’s full testimony