Environmental Stewardship

Testimony before the Federal Lands Action Group

The Environmental Implications of Federally Managed Lands in the West and Canadian Devolution
Prepared by Karla Jones
Director of the Task Force on International Relations and Federalism
American Legislative Exchange Council
February 9, 2016

Good afternoon, Members of the Federal Lands Action Group, and thank you for the opportunity to present today. I’m honored by the invitation.

My name is Karla Jones and I am the Director of the Task Force on International Relations and Federalism at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is a non-profit, non-partisan voluntary membership organization of state legislators dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism. Comprised of nearly one-quarter of the country’s state legislators and stakeholders from across the policy spectrum, ALEC members represent more than 60 million Americans and provide jobs to more than 30 million people in the United States. I am also proud to say ALEC has a strong history of leadership, with more than 200 state legislator members holding leadership positions within their legislatures. Eighty-five members of Congress are alumni of ALEC, as are seven sitting governors. Four of the presidential candidates are ALEC alumni.

The transfer of select federal western lands to state control is an issue of great importance to the state legislators that count themselves as ALEC members, and last year we published a white paper on the topic – Federally Managed Lands in the West: The Economic and Environmental Implications for the States. The paper concluded that the states would serve as superior environmental and economic stewards of select lands within their borders and that America’s own 19th century experience in transferring land from federal to state control as well as Canada’s experience with territorial devolution serve as positive models for the transfer of lands today. This afternoon I will focus on ways in which the states would serve as superior environmental stewards of the land and Canada’s experience with devolution of Yukon and Northwest Territories.

Environmental Stewardship of the Federal Estate

There is a widespread narrative, especially among Americans living in the East, that the federal government serves as a better environmental steward of the western lands than states or private entities would. This is a fiction. Bureaucratic inflexibility and regulatory redundancy make it almost impossible for the federal government to handle the lands in its charge for optimal environmental health. Any change in strategy on how to manage the lands, such as harvesting trees on forest lands to reduce wildfire fuel loads and prevent pest infestation, can take years to adopt and implement. By the time the federal government is able to act, it is often too late. The federal agencies charged with managing the federal estate also lack a budgetary incentive to foster healthy lands – their budgets remain the same whether the land under their care is healthy or not. Further, they have operated with budget shortfalls for over a decade calling into question whether they even have adequate funds to get the job done.

During moments of candor federal agencies admit that the lands under their care are unhealthy. According to the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) own criteria, 21 percent of federal grazing land is unhealthy and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, and the Congressional Research Service cites poor logging practices, overgrazing and overly aggressive fire control as major reasons for the increase in wildfires on federal lands in the West. Environmentalists and the scientific community also grudgingly acknowledge that the federal government is at best a mediocre steward of the lands in their charge citing federal mismanagement as one of the causes of the uptick in western wildfires.

Unfortunately, the states are the victims of federal mismanagement. Catastrophic has become the new normal for western wildfires leading to poor air and water quality as well as increases in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. According to one study, California wildfires are responsible for between five and seven percent of the state’s GHG emissions. In addition to wildfires, western landscapes are ravaged by bark beetles and other pests as well as poorly executed attempts to harvest trees leaving large sections of mountainsides denuded.

Despite ample evidence that the federal government is not an able steward of western public lands, some worry that if the western lands currently held by the federal government were transferred to state control, the states would be inferior stewards or indiscriminately sell lands to be developed. This is another misconception as land trusts are generally prohibited from selling the lands in their charge. They are mandated to manage their lands for long-term benefit giving them a clear incentive to promote land health. This is because land trust revenues are used to fund schools, roads and a host of social services provided by states to their residents.

State lands trusts are local entities and more accountable to the people they serve. The decision makers at the trusts understand their land’s unique qualities leading to better management. They also recognize that their states rely on income from tourism including ecotourism which is boosted by healthy lands. Additionally, they have a flexibility that their federal counterparts lack to implement new land policy strategies rapidly due to a less cumbersome bureaucratic structure.

The western states that are petitioning for or considering transfer of public lands and thinking about it are taking the responsibility very seriously. A handful of them have formed committees that have conducted feasibility studies – Utah and Nevada have exhaustive reports detailing their post-transfer plans. The Utah report, for example, includes ideas such as better zoning, fire-resistant construction, reducing fuel loads and improved fire mitigation policies that would help to prevent wildfires on transferred lands. Nevada’s report suggests exempting certain highly sensitive lands from transfer. However the report not only recommends that lands administered by the BLM that are devoted to renewables be transferred but puts forth ideas on increasing the acreage of some of the geothermal plots. Any suggestion that western states petitioning for control are not up to the task of managing many of the federal lands within their borders is patronizing and has little basis in fact.

The states are more accountable and more familiar with their own lands. Their citizens are the ones that benefit from healthy land in terms of beautiful landscapes, clean air and recreational opportunities. Additionally, when the states bear the financial costs of mismanagement directly, there is a greater incentive to manage them more proactively. In short, local governments govern best.

Canadian Devolution

Giving the states control over select federal lands within their borders will increase accountability, which will lead to better management. This is common sense, but Canada’s experience with its territories gives us an excellent real-world case study of what happens when the federal government cedes management of land to subnational governments. Canada calls the process devolution, and there are many parallels between the Canadian experience with devolution in the territories – Yukon and Northwest Territories – but significant differences that should make the transition for America’s western states more rapid.

The western Canadian provinces received control over the resources on their lands in 1930 – just 25 years after many of them became provinces – not unlike what happened with America’s 19th century then-frontier states like Illinois, Missouri and Florida. However, the territories were still controlled by the government in Ottawa, including control over territorial natural resources. The Canadian national government provided subsidies to the territories to make up for the revenue they were not able to earn from their own land, which is similar to the Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT), Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act (SRS)  and other federal subsidies U.S. western states receive today. These payments were unilaterally revised and reneged on in Ottawa. Inordinately long wait times for extraction leases were also a feature of the territories before devolution. While federal control was becoming more and more challenging for those living in the territories, most Canadians had no idea there was even a problem. They didn’t realize there was a difference between how lands were managed in the provinces compared to the territories.

The result of the policy toward the territories was a Canadian national government that was unaccountable to the people and out of touch with the land itself. In the early 1970s, the Canadian national government began transferring control to the territories incrementally. Yukon received control over the resources within its borders in 2003 and Northwest Territories in spring 2014. Nunavut is still a few years away from devolution.

By all accounts, devolution has been a resounding success. Unemployment rates in the territories are lower, mining activity has increased and local governments are showing a higher degree of accountability than had the federal government. Additionally, post devolution territories have more wilderness areas and increased tourism – especially ecotourism. Think tanks, Canadian MPs and current and former territorial Premiers are happy with the results so far of devolution. The best endorsement of devolution comes from former Alaska Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell who noted that regional control over the territories’ mineral-rich lands has made it harder for his state and the other western states to compete for market share.

Devolution should be even more successful in the U.S. due to the differences between the western states and the Canadian territories. The territories had no real governmental structures in the years before devolution efforts began. America’s western states have fully functioning democratic structures at the state and local levels and have controlled some of their lands for years. The states petitioning for transfer have conducted studies to determine if they’re ready for transfer and in some cases, like Nevada, have put together sensible plans for gradual transfer.

It is time for the states to be given the opportunity to control the lands within their borders, and I thank the Federal Lands Action Group for the work that you are doing. As a final resource, I offer the ALEC Public Policy Statement on the Transfer of Public Lands as a testament to the importance of this issue. ALEC legislator members felt strongly enough to adopt multiple model policies and resolutions on the transfer of public lands, and on my written testimony I have provided the full text of our public policy statement, which can also be found at alec.org. Thank you, and I look forward to answering any questions you might have about my presentation.

Public Policy Statement on Transfer of Public Lands

Ninety-five state and locally elected officials joined a variety of experts from 14 states in Salt Lake City to draft and ratify a statement calling for land currently held by the federal government to be transferred to the states. This Draft Model Policy, ratified by unanimous consent on October 9, 2014 at American Lands Council (ALC) Multi-State Workshop convened in Salt Lake City, UT and on October 20, 2014 by ALC Board of Directors, resulted from that summit. This statement is supported by existing ALEC model policy and calls for the restoration to the western states their most basic right – control over their land with important exemptions for national parks, Congressionally-designated wilderness area, Indian reservations and military installations.


Model Policy










  1. IMPROVE PUBLIC ACCESS: Protect public access, rights of way, and multiple-uses on public lands for all people including sportsmen, tourists, recreational users, subsistence and sustenance activities, and emergency access; and


  1. IMPROVE ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH: Reduce catastrophic wildfire fuel loads that threaten communities, infrastructure, watersheds, critical wildlife habitat, and our environment. Facilitate restoration of healthy forests, range lands, and waterways; and


iii. IMPROVE ECONOMIC PRODUCTIVITY: Secure jobs and economic growth through responsible natural resource stewardship and use including tourism and recreational opportunities; and


  1. RETAIN PUBLIC OWNERSHIP OF PUBLIC LANDS: Federal public lands shall become state public lands to be managed in accordance with state and local plans; and


  1. IMPROVE EFFICIENCY OF WILDFIRE CONTROL: Provide state, local, and tribal government with adequate wildfire prevention and control resources and develop interstate/interagency cooperative agreements necessary to combat wildfires effectively; and


  1. INCREASE LOCAL INVOLVEMENT & ACCOUNTABILITY: Ensure state-based public land management activities are consistent with local government plans, policies, and objectives; and


vii. PROTECT USE RIGHTS: Protect all valid existing rights and multiple uses, and enhance the viability of compatible, land-based livelihoods; and


viii. PRESERVE CUSTOMS & CULTURE: Preserve and protect important wild, scenic, cultural and economic resources; and


  1. INCORPORATE FEDERAL AGENCY EXPERTISE: Seek to utilize federal expertise and research through employment and/or cooperative agreements; and


  1. GENERATE SELF-SUPPORTING FINANCE: Foster compatible economic productivity to support essential government services such as local roads, utilities, emergency services, public health and safety, education, justice, and other civic functions while reducing tax burdens on citizens nationally and offsetting federal Payment in Lieu of Taxes and Secure Rural Schools funds.


Approved by the ALEC Board of Directors January 9, 2015.


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