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PUBLIC LAND BATTLE: State vs. Federal Ownership & Management

America’s vast public lands, stretching from dense forests to arid deserts, have long symbolized the nation’s rugged beauty and natural wealth.

Yet, beneath their serene surfaces lies a contentious debate: Should the ownership and management of these lands rest with individual states or the federal government?

This special October 2023 report delves into both sides of the argument.

Tracing the Origins

America’s journey with land ownership commenced with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Over the subsequent decades, acquisitions, treaties, and conquests further expanded the federal government’s land holdings.

However, the ‘how’ of its management soon turned into a bone of contention.

Close up American Bison Buffalo isolated in Badlands National Park at sunset, South Dakota

Making a Case for the States

  • Local Nuances: Proponents for state control emphasize that states, being closer to these terrains, are inherently better positioned to address the unique challenges and opportunities each presents.
  • Unlocking Economic Potential: States might have the capability to more efficiently exploit public lands for economic growth, from boosting tourism to permitting regulated industries like logging or mining.
  • Streamlined Decision-making: There’s a belief that localizing control can cut through bureaucratic red tape, leading to quicker, more community-centric decisions.

Bob Ide, Republican Sentator of Wyoming, recently said, “Today, our founders would hardly recognize our nation. In Wyoming, the federal government controls 48% of the state’s surface and 62% of our subsurface mineral rights. Not long after our statehood, the federal government started to ignore its promise to transfer our public lands to state sovereignty and jurisdiction.

This is the case for all U.S. states west of the Wyoming-Nebraska border. By contrast, the federal government owns less than 5% of the lands in North Dakota and South Dakota respectively, and less than 1% of the land in New York.”

Why the Federal Government Should Hold the Reins

  • Consistency Across Borders: A federal overview ensures that public lands, regardless of where they’re situated, benefit from a consistent management strategy, ensuring the same standards of care and access.
  • Safeguarding the Environment: With established agencies dedicated to environmental protection, the federal government can offer a holistic approach to ensuring the sustainability and preservation of diverse ecosystems.
  • A Shared National Heritage: These lands, many argue, form part of the collective American heritage. Federal oversight guarantees that every American, no matter their state of residence, enjoys equal access rights.
  • Financial Might: On matters of conservation, research, or infrastructure development, the federal government’s deep pockets can fund initiatives that might be beyond an individual state’s fiscal capacity.

A Potential Compromise: Co-management

A growing school of thought advocates for a partnership model.

By combining the strengths of both state and federal governance, it’s possible to derive a collaborative and effective land management strategy that serves a broader public interest.

In Summary

The terrain of the public land ownership debate is as varied as the lands it concerns. As America charts its course forward, the central question remains: How can we best honor, protect, and utilize these natural treasures for the collective good?

The answer, whether rooted in state rights, federal oversight, or collaboration, will shape the legacy we leave for generations to come.

Where do you stand?

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  1. Stan Harrell says:

    Living in New Mexico gives us the use of State and Federal lands.
    As always…there are pros and cons to state or federal control.
    I feel the feds use better management skills with the NM public lands.

  2. Nancy says:

    If we don’t preserve our forest all will be lost destroying the forest is wrong the wild life & animals needs the forest and people need the beauty it provides destroying what’s left is wrong

  3. Jeff says:

    While the federal government is NOT the best, at much of anything, I feel that public lands should remain in the fed’s hands. If you give/transfer public lands to state control, all they’re going to do is destroy them over time and ruin it for everyone, just to rake in that all mighty dollar!!

  4. Rick Deckert says:

    It really doesn’t matter. The government we have today, be it state or federal, is not worried about managing the land for the people. It is only worried about padding their own pockets!!

  5. Bruce says:

    As a resident of a far left single party run state, I would prefer to have control rest in Federal hands where changes cannot be made at the whim of the single minded politico, but rather by professional caretakers answerable to the whole country and not just to a dominant political party in any state.

  6. E. R. Black says:

    I for one want the federal government to control all public land. Than there is hopefully consistent laws in every area. I am a camper and enjoy the public land, as is.

  7. Ken Quick says:

    I fear that state control will make most of what is now our public land into their private land. States will want to charge for everything that involves what is now our land.

  8. Digger Bowlin says:

    Co-management, similar to the House and Senate. I don’t like the Federal Government being able to decide what to do with State land with the swipe of a pen. Others say we get to use both State and Federal lands…maybe until the Feds decide that you can no longer camp on “Federal” land or use it at all, even responsibly. This is happening in Utah and Wyoming. People come from out of state to UT and WY and trash the Federal and BLM lands…and the Feds do nothing about it, other than close the land. The states have greater ability to enforce and prosecute those that don’t respect our resources.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I live in co and do not trust the state not to sell the land out

  10. Russ Brinton says:

    Too many State governments cannot afford to properly manage the federal public lands and would end up selling them off.
    Utah and Texas are examples of improper land management.
    Texas recently lost a “state park” that was actually on LEASED LAND!
    The ACTUAL landowner decided they wanted to sell for development and so Texas citizens lost a “state park”

  11. Anonymous says:

    Federal mgmt for all!

  12. Bruce Parker says:

    While I do not implicitly trust either the federal or state governments to optimally manage land, I tilt toward federal control for consistency [as noted above] and my perception that the federal government is [relatively] less likely to make local management decisions which advantage business over long term land management. There is no perfect union here.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I prefer Fed control. Here in Florida, the state has totally ruined the state parks. By their rules, snowbirds are able to store their rv’s in the state parks and hold up campsites from being used by the locals. State control would sell off the land for development. There’s no stopping them.

  14. Marilyn Brooks says:

    Co management. Federal management might have funds, etc to do things, but without knowledge of the particular area, they might not implement the right programs, etc. Standardization does not work well when managing two totally different ecosystems. And there are many different ecosystems in our country. Local imput is vital!

  15. Linda says:

    Co-management MAY be a viable alternative, but the devil is in the details. State managed lands are extremely costly to out-of-staters to enjoy recreating on and states vary widely on their rules and regulations. Federally managed lands, unless they are using concessionaires, have pretty uniform regulations and cost sharing. As seniors, we go where we can use our Senior Passes, which is impossible on state managed lands, and our travel budget is very limited. Additionally, states are often bulldozed, under the guise of “economic development”, into developing the land in one way or another to financially benefit the few, at the cost of the many. Whether it’s exploiting natural resources (which also happens on the Federal level), or selling for commercial or residential development, it is a really bad situation for those of us who use the “leave no trace” mantra and wish to truly enjoy the natural outdoors and wildlife. However land management is handled, there really needs to be a crackdown on those who trash the outdoors with litter, etc. and ruins it for all of the rest of us!