Wyoming should study the stewardship of federal lands

The Uinta County Republican party recently passed a “Resolution in support of the conveyance of the federal Lands to willing Western States.” It is not a law and does not specify any of the myriad details that would need to be worked out. It only encourages “all national and state leaders and representatives to exert their utmost power, influence and authority to urge the legal, responsible disposal of the federal, public lands to all willing Western States.” 

The idea is to address a glaring imbalance between 12 western states and the remainder of the United States. The federal government owns and controls about 5 percent of the lands in states east of Wyoming. But in Wyoming and all states west, except Hawaii, the federal government owns and controls about half of the land. Not only does this affect surface access for sportsmen, ranchers and loggers, it also controls millions of dollars in mineral rights, other revenue streams and utility easements. 

Hawaii is no longer included as one of the “Western States” because it is the most recent state to take the action recommended by the Republican resolution. In 2009, it successfully concluded a transfer of much federally-held land to the ownership and control of the State of Hawaii. 

Of course, the federal government needs land to carry out some of its constitutionally mandated duties. It owns land for military bases, federal office buildings, post offices, national parks and monuments. It also has treaty obligations with numerous Native American tribes that require ownership of tribal lands. 

Such holdings account for the 5 percent of federal lands in the rest of America. Wyoming and the western states have roughly the same percentage of these types of holdings. Nobody is asking for a turnover of these federal lands.

At issue are the lands that generate revenue from surface leases and mineral rights. The bulk of these lands are administered by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). 

The BLM controls 264 million acres of public lands located primarily in the 12 western states. That compares with only 30,000 acres of small scattered parcels in 31 other states. That’s a whopping 8,800 to 1 ratio!

The USFS manages 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands around the nation. More than 154 million acres of these are in the western states and only 38 million in the rest of the country — more than a 4 to 1 ratio. Revenues from BLM and USFS lands include grazing rights, mineral rights, logging, recreation, etc. 

All the revenue from these lands goes directly to Washington, D.C. and is non-taxable by the state or county. To compensate for this lost revenue, Washington is supposed to remit Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) back to the counties where the lands are located.

That raises a question. After receiving the various types of revenue from federal lands, how much does Washington siphon off before authorizing the rest to go back to the county of origin? 

Seven studies between 1950 and 1999 came up with wildly different answers to this question. A 1992 BLM study claimed that counties receive three times (300 percent) more from the federal government than local property taxes would yield. But a 1999 USFS study found that PILT reimbursed only 11 percent of the property tax value. That is a 2,700-percent variance between studies!

As for mineral royalties, states are supposed to receive half of all that the federal government receives in severance taxes on oil, coal and other natural resources. But some studies have concluded that the actual number is closer to 30 percent. That would mean Wyoming alone is shorted around $350 million per year.

This is certainly true of the PILT program. Since its inception in 1976, Washington has a history of not paying the legally required amount. Currently, there are 800 different counties throughout the west that are suing the federal government for PILT back-payments. Some years, the federal government has paid nearly 100 percent of the PILT funds. Other years, like 1997, it paid little more than half.

Imagine if your family budget depended not only on your contract with your employer, but also on his mood as to whether he would honor the contract!

Layers of regulatory control and convoluted financing put the western states on a footing that is severely unequal to states in the east. Money is power. The more of it that flows through Washington before coming back to Wyoming, the more power Washington has over Wyoming’s decision-making process. So, from both a revenue standpoint and from the perspective of states’ rights, it seems right for the western states to have an opportunity to level the playing field. 

While the resolution passed without objection, there were several questions raised. Some wondered about the financial burden on the state of Wyoming to administer these lands. How much does it cost to maintain roads, fight fires, and staff campgrounds? Would these expenses eat up the gains in revenue?

While reliable data is lacking, it’s a pretty good bet that the federal government is not currently losing money on the federal lands they hold within our borders. If they were, federal politicians would surely be the first in line to transfer ownership to the states.

A second question was about recreational access. Currently, state-owned lands have no camping allowed. If federal lands were transferred to the state, would campers lose access? In answer, the attendees were reminded that the lands currently owned by the states were deeded specifically as school lands. The conveyance of federal lands would not have that restriction and the access details would be hammered out by whatever specific legislation congress would write.

A third concern was that lands deeded to the state of Wyoming might be sold to private parties in order to pay off debt. But considering that Wyoming has no debt while the federal government owes over $22 trillion, the federal government has a far greater incentive to cannibalize public lands than the state of Wyoming would. 

Indeed, three times in recent years bills have come to Congress to sell off Wyoming federal lands to pay off the debt. As the national debt rises, federal legislators from the 38 states without vast federal lands will face more and more pressure to vote for these measures. Wyoming citizens who want to keep public lands public will find many more sympathetic lawmakers in our state’s legislature than in a Congress, where Wyoming has only three votes out of 535.

This column could only touch on a few of the most basic issues. I hope it sparks a desire for you to study more. In a state where our legislature and county commissions face constant pressure to increase revenue streams, this is an idea that deserves thoughtful consideration. 

As the good citizens of Wyoming begin a conversation about this proposal, one of the most useful things that could happen is to hire an independent accounting firm that would follow the complicated money-trails and provide reliable answers to the many questions raised here and elsewhere.

All Wyomingites have a desire to preserve the beauty and the wilderness resources of this great state. The conveyance of federal lands to state ownership is not about making public lands private. It is about guaranteeing that public lands be available to the public. On that goal, we all agree.

Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.


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