Federal and state governments control more than one-third of all land in America. What distinguishes these more than 785 million acres of “public lands” from the rest—including the land your home sits on—is that, at some point, the government decided only it could ensure that these lands would be used wisely.

Presumably, most people want the remaining two-thirds of American lands to be used wisely, too. So it’s interesting that the government doesn’t apply the same logic to these. Would we be better off if bureaucrats made all decisions about what to build and where to build it; what crops to plant and where to plant them; where you may live, the size of your lot, what you may and may not do in that area, and so on?

Virtually no one today thinks so, recognizing that private ownership of land makes sense when it comes to the places we live and work. So what makes “public lands” different? It’s an important question, in part because the government has not used these lands wisely (and, as we’ll see, cannot do so). . . .


Acknowledgments: I’d like to thank Don Watkins for his very patient and instructive editing on many earlier drafts of this article. I’d also like to thank Adam Mossoff, Raymond Niles, Timothy Sandefur, Jonathan Wood, and Craig Franklin for their helpful feedback.

1. Holly Fretwell, “Restoring Our National Parks,” July 11, 2018, Property and Environmental Research Center, https://www.perc.org/2018/07/11/restoring-our-national-parks/.

2. Emerson Hemperley, “Bipartisan ‘Restore Our Parks Act’: A Dedicated Solution for the $12 Billion Maintenance Needs in Our National Parks,” U.S. Travel Association, July 3, 2018, https://www.ustravel.org/news/bipartisan-restore-our-parks-act-dedicated-solution-12-billion-maintenance-needs-our-national.

3. National Park Service, “What Is Deferred Maintenance?,” https://www.nps.gov/subjects/infrastructure/deferred-maintenance.htm (accessed April 17, 2019).

4. Laura Comay, “The National Park Service’s Maintenance Backlog: Frequently Asked Questions,” Congressional Research Service, August 23, 2017, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R44924.pdf.

5. Michael Powell, “Private Money, Public Parks,” National Recreation and Park Association, September 1, 2013, https://www.nrpa.org/parks-recreation-magazine/2013/september/private-money-public-parks/.

6. “Land Areas of the National Forest System,” U.S. Department of Agriculture: Forest Service, January 2012, https://www.fs.fed.us/land/staff/lar/LAR2011/LAR2011_Book_A5.pdf; The USFS’s 193 million acres equals about 781,043 km2. The total area of Texas is about 695,662 km2, and the total area of South Carolina is about 82,933 km2. Together they equal 778,595 km2, which is 2,448 km2less than the total area controlled by the USFS. These numbers come from “List of U.S. States and Territories by Area,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_and_territories_by_area (accessed November 13, 2018).

7. Paul Roberts, “The Federal Chain-Saw Massacre: Clinton’s Forest Service and Clear-Cut Corruption,” Harper’s, June 1997, https://harpers.org/archive/1997/06/the-federal-chain-saw-massacre/; John A. Baden and Andrew C. St. Lawrence, “A Century of Forest Service Ineptitude,” Foundation for Economic Education, October 1, 1997, https://fee.org/articles/a-century-of-forest-service-ineptitude/.

8. Alison Berry, “Forest Policy Up in Smoke: Fire Suppression in the United States,” Property and Environmental Research Center, https://www.perc.org/wp-content/uploads/2007/09/Forest_Policy_Up_in_Smoke.pdf (accessed February 24, 2019).

9. Christopher Nagano, “Declaration of Christopher D. Nagano,” http://media.law.stanford.edu/organizations/programs-and-centers/enrlp/doc/slspublic/delhi_fly_1ex.pdf (accessed April 18, 2019).

10. Community Hospital of Monterey Peninsula, “Hospital Pricing: Average Charges for 25 Common Procedures,” https://www.chomp.org/patients-visitors/patient/billing-insurance/pricing/#.XLhSbi2ZNQI (accessed April 18, 2019).

11. Josh Eagle, “The Endangered Delhi Sands Flower-Loving Fly: Part I,” Stanford Law School, November 1998, http://media.law.stanford.edu/organizations/programs-and-centers/enrlp/doc/slspublic/delhi-1.pdf, 13.

12. In the past decade, the NPS has cost roughly $28.4 billion, averaging $2.84 billion per year; President Donald Trump has proposed a $2.7 billion budget for 2019. The 2019 USFS budget is $4.7 billion. The 2019 BLM budget is $930 million. The 2019 USFWS budget is $2.8 billion.

13. William Everhart,National Park Service (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1983), 47.

14. Steve Stuebner, “Grazing: Permits,” Life on the Range, https://idrange.org/range-stories/central-idaho/grazing-permits-process-for-renewing-blm-grazing-permits-is-extensive-lawsuits-and-appeals-raise-the-bar-add-time-for-review/ (accessed April 18, 2019).

15. “What We Believe,” U.S. Department of Agriculture: U.S. Forest Service, https://www.fs.fed.us/about-agency/what-we-believe (accessed February 24, 2019).

16. Scott Lehman, Privatizing Public Land (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 46.

17. For instance, in February 1999, Forest Service Chief Michael Dombeck announced an eighteen-month road-building moratorium on 130 national forests. This became the basis for a directive issued by President Clinton during his last days in office, which prohibited virtually all roadbuilding, logging, and mining of coal, oil, and natural gas on 58 million acres of national forest lands. See “The Roadless Rule,” Earth Justice, https://earthjustice.org/features/timeline-of-the-roadless-rule.

18. Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Social Contract, Fall 2001, https://www.garretthardinsociety.org/articles_pdf/tragedy_of_the_commons.pdf.

19. Land development entrepreneur Warren Meyer said this to me during a recorded interview on October 1, 2018.

20. Brian Maffly, “Utah Company Gives $100k to Keep Zion, Arches and Bryce Operating through Presidents Day during Shutdown,” Salt Lake Tribune, January 24, 2019, https://www.sltrib.com/news/environment/2019/01/24/utah-company-gives-k-keep/.

21. Nature Conservancy, “Bigger, Faster, Smarter: Conservation Reimagined, 2018 Annual Report,” https://www.nature.org/content/dam/tnc/nature/en/documents/2018-annual-report-english.pdf (accessed April 17, 2019).

22. Lawrence Anthony, The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012), 5.

23. “Bear Management,” National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/bearmgmt.htm (accessed April 27, 2019).

24. P. J. Hill, Brian Yablonski, and James Huffman, “Property Rights Are for Everyone—Even American Prairie Reserve,” Property and Environmental Research Center, March 27, 2019, https://www.perc.org/2019/03/27/property-rights-are-for-everyone-even-american-prairie-reserve/.

25. Jes Burns, “Looking Back: The Northwest Forest Plan’s New Conservation Paradigm,” Oregon Public Broadcasting, April 6, 2015, https://www.opb.org/news/article/looking-back-the-northwest-forest-plans-new-conservation-paradigm/.

26. David Wilma, “U.S. District Court Judge William Dwyer Blocks Timber Sales to Protect the Northern Spotted Owl on May 23, 1991,” HistoryLink.org, February 28, 2003, https://www.historylink.org/File/5321.

27. Warren Meyer, “A Tale of Two Parks,” Property and Environmental Research Center, September 25, 2013, https://www.perc.org/2013/09/25/a-tale-of-two-parks/.

28. USFS District Ranger Mike Herrin to Mrs. Samantha Rolando, area manager, Recreational Resource Management, Juniper Springs Recreation Area, July 24, 2014.

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