New Analysis: More Private and State Lands Per Capita in Western States than Eastern States

Apr 28, 2015

By Center for Western Priorities

Politicians Should Stop Scapegoating American Public Lands by Claiming They Are a Drag on Local and State Budgets

A growing number of politicians and pundits in 11 Western states and in Congress are working to give away and sell-off our national public lands to state and private interests.

They argue that Western states are at a disadvantage because there are too many national public lands like national parks, national forests, and other conservation areas, while there are not enough private and state lands to provide a funding base for services like education and law enforcement.

“Our kids are hurt by this massive amount of federal land being controlled by the federal government,”

Congressman Rob Bishop in the Deseret News, 3/31/15

Our new analysis shows that the complaint that Western states are at a disadvantage because less land is under state control does not hold water.

In fact, on a per resident basis, Western states actually have more land under private, state, and local ownership than many Eastern states, equating to more taxable lands per capita and more lands under state control.

Montana, for example, has 62 acres of nonfederal land for every Montanan, the highest proportion of any state in lower 48 states. Wyoming has 50 acres of nonfederal land per capita (ranked 4th in the lower 48), while Utah has 5.2 acres of nonfederal land for every Utahn (ranked 25th in the lower 48).

For comparison, South Carolina has only 3.8 acres of private and state land per capita, while New York has only 1.5 acres of nonfederal land for every one of its residents and Maryland only 1 acre for each resident.

There is little doubt that many Western states have public funding woes. It is often noted, for example, that Utah has the lowest per pupil education funding in the nation. But given the acreage states have available to raise funds, as taxable private lands and developable state lands, other factors are at play.

Look no further than below average property taxes in many Western states, which places town budgets, public school systems, law enforcement, roads, and local parks at a distinct disadvantage.

State and Local Property Tax Collections Per Capita, Select Western States


National Rank













New Mexico






National Avg.


Source: Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence

Many Western states have among the lowest property tax rates in the nation and some have continued to aggressively cut taxes, often at the expense of public education and other key services.

The federal government, and our system of national public lands, is an easy scapegoat for politicians. But rather than wasting time and additional taxpayer resources on a quixotic quest to seize our public lands, they should consider addressing the actual root problems facing many Western communities.