Throughout American History federal land policies have been contentious. Federal Land ownership began with the cession to the federal government of western lands claimed by the original colonies. The state’s cession of land was crucial in enabling the federal government to meet its financial obligations, including a massive debt incurred during the Revolutionary War. Land in the public domain grew with subsequent acquisition and treaties (Poulson 1981).
From the outset, federal land policy was to sell, grant, or transfer lands to private ownership in order to promote western settlement. In all, a total of 816 million acres has been transferred from the public domain to the private sector (Vincent et al 2014).
Another objective of federal land policy was to support public education. The federal government conveyed 471 million acres of land to the states, primarily in the form of ‘trust land’ grants. As each new state entered the union, they receive one section of land in each township for public education; as well as land grants for other public institutions. As the population expanded westward, the size of these grants was gradually increased to four sections for every township, reflecting the larger amount of land required to generate revenue in the arid regions of the west (Vincent et al 2014).
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries land policy shifted toward land preservation and conservation. The National Park System, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management were created to manage federal lands. In the middle of the 20th century conservationists demanded that parts of the land in the public domain be set aside as wilderness areas. The Wilderness Act of 1964 set aside millions of acres of wilderness, with very restrictive rules on their use. This was followed by other laws restricting use of land in the public domain, including the Clean Air Act of 1970, the National Environmental Protection Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. The federal government now controls 640 million acres, almost one third the total land mass of the country. Most of these federal lands are in the west; in some states, such as Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah, more than half of the total land area is controlled by the federal government (Vincent et al 2014).
The outcome of federal land policy over the past century is that western states are left with large portions of their land controlled by the Federal government, with little influence over how the lands are used. Since the Sagebrush Rebellion was launched in the 1970s, different interest groups have challenged the federal control of public lands, through the courts and through legislation. Citizens have lost faith in the ability of the federal government to manage land in the public domain. Federal agencies manage these lands inefficiently, incurring sizeable losses each year. Conflicts over land policy end up in the courts, wasting millions of dollars (U.S. Congress 2017).
States have proven to be better managers of public lands in achieving multiple objectives, compared to the federal government. Utah, for example, privatized a significant share of the public lands received through land grants. On the lands retained in the public sector, Utah provides for multiple uses, including resource development as well as recreational uses. Utah has also proven to be a good steward in protecting state lands with unique bio-diversity, geological formations, natural landscapes, and cultural antiquities (H.B. 148 2012; Office of the Governor 2014).
The Republican platform in 2016 stated that “Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to the states” (Republican National Convention 2016). The Federal Land Freedom Act of 2017 would permit a state that has established a leasing, permitting and regulatory program to petition the U.S. Secretaries of the Interior, of Agriculture, and of Energy for transfer of control over existing federal land to the state for energy development (U.S. Congress 2017).
It is time for a new ‘Grand Bargain’ that would give the citizens most impacted final say in the disposition of public lands. The western states could form a Compact of the States to draft a ‘New Homestead Law’, providing for devolution of land and resources in the public domain to the states. State legislatures could then enact laws for the management of these public lands (Merrifield and Poulson 2017).
A new ‘Grand Bargain’, could be a win-win outcome for the federal government as well. By shifting management to the states, the federal government could eliminate agencies now managing the public lands. The revenue received by the federal government from the sale and leasing of public lands could then be earmarked for debt reduction. Thus, reverse revenue sharing could result in downsizing the federal government, rather than the endless expansion of federal bureaucracies. A new ‘Grand Bargain’ could restore the federalist system to something closer to that envisioned by the founding fathers when they wrote the Tenth Amendment.