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Are Federal Lands Worthless?

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By George Khoury, Esq. on January 23, 2017 2:59 PM

In a legislative move that is making waves, the House of Representatives has revised the way it evaluates federal lands for conveyances/transfers to states, essentially allowing federal lands to be gifted to the states, local governments, or tribal entities. From there, the government recipients may be free to sell, lease, or otherwise do what they will with those federal lands.

Divesting federal lands has been a goal of conservatives since the Reagan era. While no federal lands have been given away just yet, the groundwork is now there to do so much easier, as revenue generation is no longer a matter for consideration (see page 35).

Do Federal Lands Generate Revenue?

Federal lands do more than just generate boatloads of revenue for the federal government from tourism, they also provide jobs for millions of Americans employed by the parks and land management agencies. To be more exact, the federal tax revenue from tourism is $40 billion, and there are approximately 6.1 million workers. Additionally, it is estimated that $646 billion is spent annually on tourism related to the federal lands.

Why Would the Government Give Away Land?

Although it seems counterintuitive that the government would just want to give away lands that generate tax revenue and employee millions, conservative politics generally favor a smaller federal government and stronger state governments. By allowing the feds to transfer lands to the states, it is essentially giving the tax revenues generated by the parks and lands to the states, and allows the states to decide how to manage the lands and funds.

In addition to transferring more economic autonomy to the states, the jobs related to the parks would also go from federal employment to state employment. This means that the federal government would no longer have to pay those employees' salaries, benefits, or retirements. Basically, doing so reduces the size of the federal government.

Social Concerns

The big concern with allowing the federal government to give the lands to the states is the risk of the states passing on the operations and control of the lands to private, corporate interests. The big fear of private interests controlling federal lands is that the public will have less access to the lands than before.

Additional concerns involve federal regulations and enforcement related to the preservation of the federal lands. While the states would be generating increased tax revenue, the costs of operation would likely be higher for the states, making it more lucrative to sell the rights or land outright to private interests.

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