A Closer Look at the Flawed Talking Point that States are the Best Land Managers

Apr 21, 2015

By Center for Western Priorities

The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), a conservative think tank that espouses “free market environmentalism” as a cure-all for land and environmental issues across America, has been making the media rounds with a flawed comparison of state and federal management of public lands.

The study has become fodder for advocates of giving away or selling off our public lands, and others who are searching for chinks in the armor of federal land management agencies. But its glaring flaws would suggest that the authors designed a study to specifically support the organization’s ideology, which prioritizes extractive industries, reduces public access through privatization, and ignores the benefits of balanced land management.

The overarching conclusion of the PERC study states:

“The federal government often loses money managing valuable natural resources. States, on the other hand, consistently generate significant amounts of revenue from state trust lands.”

But a closer look at the study reveals that this conclusion is both false and misleading.

The most significant problem with the conclusion that the federal government loses money on managing public lands is the authors’ failure to address the costs of wildfire protection and the key role federal agencies play in protecting communities from natural disaster. Buried in the report, the authors admit that they “do not directly address the cost of managing and suppressing wildfire.”

Yet PERC does include the cost of protecting communities from wildfire in its data showing how money is lost on federal public land management. In fact, fire protection spending makes up over 40 percent of all the costs PERC claims the federal government “wastes” managing our national public lands. The fact that the Forest Service and other agencies fight wildfires—often-unavoidable natural disasters—is actually a benefit to private landowners and communities.

If these wildfire-fighting expenses (which have averaged $3.13 billion annually in recent years) are removed from PERC’s analysis, the federal government actually makes $1.17 billion in revenue from national public lands each year.



Net Revenue

PERC’s Cost Analysis (including wildfire spending)

$5.3 billion

$7.2 billion

-$1.9 billion

PERC’s Cost Analysis (without wildfire spending)

$5.3 billion

$4.1 billion

$1.2 billion


In addition to the study’s questionable methodology, it also ignores the critical difference between state trust lands and national public lands. State governments, unlike the federal government, are required by their constitutions to maximize short-term profits on their trust lands.

In other words, states are legally obligated to squeeze as much money from the land as possible, which has the effect of prioritizing valuable commodities like oil, natural gas, and coal.

For example, in Arizona, livestock grazing dominates state trust lands; in Utah, oil and gas development and mining account for 75 percent of state land revenue. The sale of state trust lands is also a common—and permanent—practice: Nevada has so far sold all but 3,000 of its original 2.7 million acres.

On the other hand, the law requires the Interior Department and other federal land management agencies to manage lands for multiple uses. So, federal lands can be managed for other benefits besides those that are easily quantifiable—such as recreation access, clean water, and hunting opportunities.

PERC’s advocacy for “land transfers,” sell-offs, and expanded mineral exploitation could in part be explained by the group’s close financial ties to the oil and gas industry. PERC has taken at least $258,000 from Koch brothers-affiliated organizations, and Executive Director Reed Watson previously worked for the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation.

The group is also a longtime proponent of the outright privatization of our national public lands. In 1999, PERC founder Terry Anderson authored a paper called “How and Why to Privatize Federal Lands.” Just last year, Anderson followed it up with an op-ed asserting, “It’s time to consider privatization rather than more politicization of federal lands. We could start by selling off millions of acres of grazing lands.”

While there are valid debates to be had about proper land management, privatization of national public lands is an extreme position—not to mention an unpopular one. Sixty-nine percent of Westerners oppose selling public lands to address budget deficits, while a whopping 96 percent support protecting natural areas for future generations.

Of course, it is always important to have a valid conversation about land management—certainly the federal government has much to learn from the states, including the need to charge a fair royalty rate on oil, natural gas, and coal.

However, as an organization testifying in front of Congress (as it will do on Wednesday, for the second time in seven days) PERC should strive to provide accurate information to the debate. Instead, it has circulated a flawed report that only succeeds in perpetuating its one-sided, market-based approach to land management.