Today's Political Economy of Federal Lands

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Today's Political Economy of Federal Lands

By: John A. Baden, Ph.D.
Posted on February 08, 2017 FREE Insights Topics:

The federal government owns over one quarter of America’s land, some 28%. West of the Mississippi the proportion increases to roughly one half. In Utah it’s 70%, Nevada 85%, and California over 45%. In marked contrast federal holdings in Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa average one percent. That’s 1.0%.

Why the difference? Mainly because the land in these Midwestern states was worth homesteading. The land is productive. Crops, including timber, like to grow where it’s warm, wet and low. These are the conditions for naturally high biomass production. (Only due to irrigation does our ranch produce six tons of alfalfa per acre. Our dry land yields a quarter of that.)

Much of the West is high, dry, cold or all three. Such land was not worth the effort, or actually impossible, to prove up as viable homesteads. Many homestead families failed and the land abandoned to the government or bought by ranchers. Only a fifth of the post WWI homesteaders in NE Montana succeeded. Four generations later, circumstances still wring out some the survivors. And opportunities elsewhere are enticing.

Only mining, and in some places tourism, generate significant wealth, but hardly ever prosperity in great majority of the high, dry, and cold West. The West “mines” the national taxpayer via subsidies--but that is negative on net. In the political arena efficiency lacks a strong constituency so these wealth transfers will continue.  

Yet, some of the natives correctly assess the foregone wealth potential of the land caused by regulations and management by federal agencies. These are the obvious constraints on development. Every few years a small minority agitates to transfer federal lands “back” to the states. Why? The development interests believe that they have greater influence in state and local arenas and can more easily co-opt citizen lawmakers than the professionals in DC.

State lands are usually managed better on economic and ecological dimensions. Yet, the recurrent efforts to transfer lands to the states or private parties will fail—at least until the federal government is unable to meet its entitlement obligations.

Outdoors and sportsmen interests are wedded to the federal lands and their economic influence grows. Mean while, an ever-decreasing proportion of the West’s population works in mining, logging, and ranching. Further, most of the new arrivals, especially part timers, place a high value on having vast expanses of relatively unspoiled federal lands available for their pleasure.

We can expect occasional and sometimes dramatic outbursts from cultural remnants of the old west. The Bundy Ranch Nevada Standoff of 2014 is an example. In December of 2016 President Obama included it and Bears Ears in Southern Utah as part of our National Monument System. He stated: “"Today’s actions will help protect this cultural legacy and will ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and appreciate these scenic and historic landscapes. Importantly, today I have also established a Bears Ears Commission to ensure that tribal expertise and traditional knowledge help inform the management of the Bears Ears National Monument and help us to best care for its remarkable national treasures."

On February 6, 2017, six defendants in the Bundy case have began trial their federal trial. We’ve seen earlier versions of this movie. In the original versions it was Indians who lost their lands to alien invaders.  


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