The Federal Land Policy Management Act: The Plight of Western Public Lands

The Federal Land Policy Management Act:

The Plight of Western Public Lands

by Aedan Hannon


The rekindling of the Sagebrush Rebellion in recent years has again brought the fight over public lands to the attention of the nation. In 1976, the Federal Land Policy Management Act shifted the focus of the BLM from maximizing the extraction of natural resources to preserving parts of these same lands[1]. The FLPMA brought immediate uproar throughout the West, turning local politicians into the founders of the Sagebrush Rebellion[2]. The Sagebrush Rebellion was, and is, a predominantly Western movement to assert more local control over rural lands. Many of these “Sagebrush Rebels”, funded almost solely by the extractive industry, have called for the outright transfer of federal lands to the states[3]. Over time the rebellion has sputtered, but recently it has again become the face of the battle over federal, or public, lands.


The federal government owns approximately 47% of the land in the West.[4] This includes nearly 84.9% of all the land in Nevada and 64.9% of all the land in Utah[5]. The Federal Land Policy Management Act of 1976 reaffirmed federal ownership of these public lands, but more importantly established multiple use management. This management policy initiated the need to balance the extractive industry, grazing, recreation, and wildlife protection on federal lands[6]. It valued recreation and wildlife protection as much as large consumptive industries. However, the FLPMA does not do enough and should be amended to permanently protect federal lands from the greed of states and private interest.


An amended FLPMA should emphasize the recreational and economic benefit of federal public lands while reducing the importance of extractive industry and grazing to ensure that the growing public support for pristine natural lands is accounted for. Recent figures show that the outdoor recreation industry and federal lands generate approximately $646 billion annually[7]. This money comes from hunters, anglers, hikers, backpackers, and climbers. All of these groups have a stake in federal land and more and more people are taking advantage of it. The National Park Service reported in 2015 that more than 300 million people visited its sites, the most in history[8].


This increasing trend in the visitation of national parks is also accompanied by increased public support for pristine natural lands. A recent Colorado College survey showed that 58% of people oppose transferring control of federal lands to states[9]. Sixty-eight percent of those polled prioritized the protection of wildlife and recreation over 22% who prioritized the production of fossil fuels[10]. These priorities should only increase the American public’s stake in the management of federal lands and the Federal Land Policy Management Act should reflect this.


In addition, the FLPMA should be amended to permanently assure federal land stays in federal hands because the transfer of public lands to the states would prove a significant financial burden. The federal government significantly subsidizes many of the miners and ranchers in the West, including those that are part of the Sagebrush Rebellion[11]. If federal land were transferred to the states, the operation prices for ranching and natural resource extraction would have to increase or the state government would become responsible for subsidizing these industries. A 2016 economic study of Utah showed that it would cost the state government $275 million annually to take over the management of federal lands[12]. In a state like Nevada, this cost would likely be higher since they would have to manage approximately 20% more land than Utah[13].


This financial burden would force states to sell these lands to private interests, primarily the extractive industries, without compensating the American citizens[14]. In fact, U.S. taxpayers have lost more than $30 billion in revenues over the last 30 years from coal mined in Montana and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. This is simply due to private interests paying the government less than market value for the resource and land to increase their profits[15].


While the Sagebrush Rebellion still wages its war, more and more of the American public is using and investing in federally owned lands. The Federal Land Policy Management Act is still antiquated in its undervaluing of public opinion and recreation while overvaluing industry. It is time to amend the FLPMA and reaffirm the importance of federal land to the identity of the United States and its people.


Kameron comment:
Protected wilderness areas are not only important for the economic value they bring to their respective regions, but also for the intrinsic value they bring to the United States and it’s citizens. Even if I never set foot in every National Park and piece of federal land in the US, I will be happy knowing that they exist. Protecting biodiversity and ecosystems is more important than ever with our growing population and reliance on fossil fuels. Your blog does an exemplary job of highlighting the importance and public support for these protected public lands. Well done.


Lukas G. comment:
I think one of the biggest issues at stake for the protection of federal lands comes with the current federal administrations attempt to bring back the coal industry. If the federal government wants to increase reliance on coal, then that is where we are going to lose federal lands to energy production. Despite whether or not we keep the power to manage federal lands in the hands of the federal government, the current administration wants to develop those lands anyway. I think to solve this issue we need to find a way to increase the number of Americans who wish to identify these lands with the American intrinsic value that they deserve, unless those views are further shifted in favor of preservation, administrations like Trump’s will continue to endanger these lands.


Kim-Lin comment:

Aedan, your post on the FLPMA was very interesting. I agree with your argument that if amended, the Act should emphasize the recreational and economic benefits that these lands can produce, as well as reducing the important it has for extraction. I do wonder however, how politically feasible this would be in the current political atmosphere. Trump’s stance on environmental issues, alongside his stance on energy, does not seem to foster amendments such as these. Despite this, I think your arguments about the Act and possible amendments are very good ones, and would most likely protect ecosystems and the species that live in them.


Jack G. comment:
Aedan, great piece on the value of our federal lands. You touched nicely on the fact that state-transfer is essentially private transfer, due to the states’ very limited fiscal ability to maintain those large tracts out West. Like you, I’m tired of the ongoing debate about private/state ownership of federal lands. The discussion is scary because if lands were transferred to state interests, there is essentially no way to re-transfer them back to the federal level. In essence, the initial land-transfer would be irreversible. We need a way to make federal lands federal once and for all, and you posited an effective way of doing just that.


Michael W. comment:
I really enjoyed your blog post and found the issues surrounding federal land management very interesting. Your point that transferring the ownership of federal lands to states would result in privatization was particularly interesting to me. I wasn’t aware that states would not be able to financially support the lands they would acquire and would be forced to sell the land use rights to private industries, which would often be fossil fuel industries. Although western states may understand their constituent’s priorities for public land better than the federal government, it seems silly to me that they would encourage these policies that would primarily benefit large corporations and would do little to help the ranchers. Seeing this interesting dynamic makes me understand why the “Sagebrush Rebels” were often funded by extractive industries. Would an educational campaign or more communication from members of Congress that do not support extractive industries change the opinions of rebels and Westerners that are particularly weary of federal government overreach? Great work!


Henry comment:
You’ve made a real strong argument for protecting federal lands. While I feel like there are always advantages to both sides of the argument, I struggle to find any holes in yours (though I’m coming in with a bias – I also think federal lands need to stay federal). I am curious about the constraints the states would have if the land were to be provided to them in the form of a land trust. I’ve read that selling state land can only be authorized under certain circumstances, though I also don’t doubt that state legislators could easily legislate some loopholes if they wanted to. They could lease the land for extraction, grazing, and timber the same way the federal government does now, but all that must be done with long-term usability/profits as a result. I would hope that conservation groups could put together strong legal cases against the state if they were to over-lease the land (i.e. use is unsustainably).


Adrian comment:
Great blog! I definitely agree that there should be amendments made to the FLPMA to ensure that federal lands are maintained in the hands of the federal government. Selling lands to private interest groups would likely prove to be detrimental to the environment, leaving control over lands to private extractive industries.


[1] Thompson, Jonathan. “The First Sagebrush Rebellion: What Sparked It and How It Ended.” The First Sagebrush Rebellion: What Sparked It and How It Ended. High Country News, 14 Jan. 2016. Web. 07 Mar. 2017.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bui, Quoctrung, and Margot Sanger-Katz. “Why the Government Owns So Much Land in the West.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 5 Jan. 2016. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.

[5] Johnson, David, and Pratheek Rebala. “Here’s Where the Federal Government Owns the Most Land.” Time. Time Inc., 5 Jan. 2016. Web. 07 Mar. 2017.

[6] Ballotpedia. “Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976.” Ballotpedia. Ballotpedia, n.d. Web. 07 Mar. 2017.

[7] Busse, Ryan. “The House Places No Value on an American Treasure – Its Public Lands.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 17 Jan. 2017. Web. 07 Mar. 2017.

[8] Flowers, Andrew. “The National Parks Have Never Been More Popular.” FiveThirtyEight. FiveThirtyEight, 25 May 2016. Web. 07 Mar. 2017.

[9] Finley, Bruse. “Western Voters Prioritize Conservation and Keeping Public Lands Public, Poll Finds.” The Denver Post. Digital First Media, 31 Jan. 2017. Web. 7 Mar. 2017.

[10] Finley, Bruse. “Western Voters Prioritize Conservation and Keeping Public Lands Public, Poll Finds.” The Denver Post. Digital First Media, 31 Jan. 2017. Web. 7 Mar. 2017.

[11] Nijhuis, Michelle. “What Will Become of Federal Public Lands under Trump?” The New Yorker. Conde Nast, 31 Jan. 2017. Web. 8 Mar. 2017.

[12] Bui, Quoctrung.

[13] Johnson, David, and Pratheek Rebala. “Here’s Where the Federal Government Owns the Most Land.” Time. Time Inc., 5 Jan. 2016. Web. 07 Mar. 2017.

[14] Hansman, Heather. “Congress Just Made It Easier to Sell off Federal Land, including National Parks.” Business Insider. Business Insider Inc., 20 Jan. 2017. Web. 08 Mar. 2017.

[15] Institute for Energy Economics & Financial Analysis. “Report- Almost $30 Billion in Revenues Lost to Taxpayers by.” Institute for Energy Economics & Financial Analysis. Institute for Energy Economics & Financial Analysis, 25 June 2012. Web. 08 Mar. 2017.