Devolution: A Canadian Solution to Excessive Federal Ownership of Public Lands

On April 1, Canada’s Northwest Territories (NWT) celebrated an important milestone – the first anniversary of devolution. Devolution is the transfer of jurisdiction over territorial lands from the Canadian federal government to the territorial governments. However, before devolution, the situation in the Canadian territories was strikingly similar to the one in the American West today. U.S. federal control of public lands in the states from Colorado westward ranges from more than 30 percent in Montana to more than 80 percent in Nevada. The U.S. government administers more than 50 percent of the land inside the borders of Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, and only 4 percent of land in the East.

Environmental and Economic Stewardship

This disproportionate western federal land ownership has far-reaching effects on states’ ability to grow and diversify economically and to fund vital public services such as education, infrastructure maintenance and construction, law enforcement and social services. There is ample evidence that the states would serve as superior economic and environmental stewards of the public lands inside their borders. According to a recent study conducted by the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), Divided Lands: State vs. Federal Management in the West, “state trust agencies produce far greater financial returns from land management than federal land agencies.” State land trusts price land leases in response to market forces and are mandated to make more money on land leases than they spend. Bureaucratic redundancy and a cumbersome regulatory system limit the federal government’s flexibility to price leases appropriately and Washington has no direct fiduciary responsibility or accountability to the residents of the state where the land is located.

The federal government’s record on protecting the environment is also lacking. Large wildfires on federal lands increased by 75 percent from the years 1980-1989 to the years 2000-2009, and mismanagement of the federal estate is widely believed to be one of the driving factors behind the increase. A Congressional Research Service report, Federal Land Ownership: Overview and Data, attributes the problem to “poor logging practices, overgrazing and [excessive] fire control” leading to more flammable biomass. State lawmakers predict that the fuel loads on federally administered lands could lead to even greater numbers of catastrophic blazes and complain that federal policies have precluded roads in some forest regions that hinder firefighting efforts. The federal government’s own assessment is discouraging. The Department of the Interior estimates that deferred maintenance for the lands it administers runs into the billions of dollars and the National Park Service recently announced that it delayed $11.5 billion in maintenance in 2014 alone.[i]

Particularly disheartening is that in administering the federal estate, the government fails to capitalize on those opportunities where economic and environmental interests dovetail. According to Bureau of Land Management assessments, federal grazing lands do not meet the agency’s own standards for land health, which helps to explain why on average the state land trusts for Arizona, Idaho, Montana and New Mexico earn $4.89 for each dollar spent on grazing leases compared to the federal government which earns less than 15 cents for each dollar spent.[ii] In another stunning example of missed opportunity, the federal government is not permitted to lease lands to conservation groups for restoration. The states have no such restrictions and are compelled to accept competitive offers whether they originate with mining companies or a group committed to restoring the land. Much state public land has been leased for just this purpose.

This experience is driving state and, more recently, federal initiatives to transfer control of federally administered lands to the states. Federal and state legislation exclude national parks, federally designated wilderness areas, military installations and tribal lands from transfer.

Canada’s Devolution Revolution

Canada offers a glimpse into what could be the U.S. post-transfer of public lands future. Canada’s federal government once controlled huge swathes of all three territories – Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Just like in the U.S., Ottawa’s geographical distance from the lands it administered resulted in bureaucratic redundancy and lack of local accountability. In 2003, Yukon became the first territory to be awarded jurisdiction over its territorial lands and resources, and nine years on, scholars at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario issued a report confirming “that devolution has generally had a positive effect on the territory and in particular has led to more efficient and responsive land use…” From 2003-2012, Yukon’s real GDP growth exceeded the national rate and private sector contributions to the economy increased substantially. Yukon’s unemployment rate remains below the national average, and understanding the importance of tourism to the economy, Yukon has protected its lands, and has been rewarded by tourism revenues of $200 million annually.

Emboldened by Yukon’s experience, devolution became official for the NWT on April 1, 2014. NWT Premier Stephen Kakfwi explained the importance of this step as a way to job creation and an enhanced standard of living. After preparation for devolution began, NWT realized the vastness of its untapped resources. The territory is estimated to have 37 percent of Canada’s marketable light crude and 35 percent of its marketable natural gas. One year on, devolution in NWT has been a success; a fact highlighted by Canada’s Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development at the one year anniversary.

Devolution has given Northerners more control over their own economic and political destiny by placing decision making about land and resources in Northerners’ hands. It is increasing the prosperity of the NWT by giving the territorial government the power to collect and share in resource revenues.

Further evidence that devolution is a Canadian success story is that Nunavut, the only territory without control of its public lands, is seeking an agreement as early as autumn 2015. Devolution is a Canadian idea that the U.S. should borrow and make its own.


[i] Hicks, Josh, “National Park Service delayed $11billion in maintenance last year because of budget challenges,” Washington Post, March 25, 2015.

[ii] Fretwell, Holly and Shawn Regan, “Divided Lands: State vs. Federal Management in the West,” The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), March 2015.

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