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A regional public media collaboration serving the Rocky Mountain States of Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Transferring Federal Lands To Western States Is Economically Fraught, Report Concludes

Photo of desert with a State Trust Land sign.
Headwaters Economics
Economic costs of transferring public lands from the federal government to Western states include the cost of suppressing wildfires. The U.S. Forest Service spent $2.4 billion on fighting fires on public and private lands in 2017.

A new white paper from the non-profit Headwaters Economics says transferring public lands from the federal government to Western states would generate more revenue, but also comes with high economic costs.

“While transferring federal lands to state trust management would result in more gross revenue,” the paper says, “we find three other major implications: land would be managed exclusively for revenue maximization, states would face new and increased expenses, and state and local economies would become more specialized and volatile.”

Mark Haggerty, who co-authored the report, says environmental planning and wildfire suppression are two of the costs that stand out.

“All of the costs associated with managing [federal public lands] can really erode that revenue benefit and in some cases it might even reverse it,” Haggerty said. “One of the largest costs is wildfire suppression.”

In 2017, it cost the U.S. Forest Service $2.4 billion to fight fires on public and private lands.

Haggerty suggests that instead of transferring federal lands to the states, the feds should increase rates for energy development and grazing on public lands and then pump that money into nearby rural economies. 

“If the federal government adopted a beneficiary model where they are working on behalf of communities in the public to guarantee a fair return where commercial activities are permitted, that would be a good policy outcome of this comparison,” Haggerty said.

Headwaters Economics, based in Bozeman, Montana, compiled the white paper, called “State Trust Lands in Transition: Implications for Federal Land Transfer,” by analyzing trust lands that had already been given to the states many decades ago by the federal government. 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Nate Hegyi is the Utah reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, based at KUER. He covers federal land management agencies, indigenous issues, and the environment. Before arriving in Salt Lake City, Nate worked at Yellowstone Public Radio, Montana Public Radio, and was an intern with NPR's Morning Edition. He received a master's in journalism from the University of Montana.
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