Keeping Public Lands Public

A flurry of initiatives in recent years to transfer federal lands to state governments continues to generate concern among grassroots users of public lands and motivate action by conservation organizations.

Some 621 million acres are held in the public trust and managed by federal land-management agencies. This equates to 27 percent of the nation’s total landmass. 

The issue is on the front burner in America’s western states, where much of the country’s federal land is held, including more than 245 million acres administered by the Bureau of Land Management. 

Kurt Dyroff, NWTF’s director of conservation operations in the western region, said at least one state legislature (Utah) has passed laws calling for the federal government to transfer its lands back to the state. 

“Things there are at a standstill, but there is the potential for lawsuits in the future,” he said. 

Several factors are fueling this renewed push. First, Dyroff explained, is a perception that much of the large tracts owned by the federal government is managed by federal employees living thousands of miles away and are out of touch with western needs.

Second, the amount of federal land ownership in the West, especially when compared to other parts of the country, is substantial. He said some perceive it as a fairness issue, noting many eastern lands were transferred from federal to private ownership years ago.

Then there are concerns over such restrictions as access, timber harvest, grazing, mineral exploration and energy development, Dyroff added. These restrictions and a lack of state control often result in claims of lost revenue. Under a process known as “payment in lieu of taxes,” the federal government, in some cases, reimburses states and localities for a portion of revenues that would be expected if the land was taxable. Proponents of state ownership and control contend these payments, where they exist, are inadequate.

Finally, Dyroff added, some argue that states have a constitutional right to these lands.

“I believe the thought is that local communities would benefit from jobs created through increased recreational access, logging, mineral development, energy exploration and ranching,” Dyroff said. “The problem, though, is we don’t really know who will benefit the most, because there is no guarantee how these lands would be managed and who would have ultimate ownership. The states would be faced with the incredible challenge of finding the resources to manage these lands, and there’s a significant risk that they would be sold to private developers, thus losing benefits and access for the general public.”


Managing land requires resources. While the notion of local control almost always has a nice ring to it, opponents of such transfers point out that once states get control, history shows that many parcels eventually convert to private control via auction or other means. 

The NWTF is one of the American Wildlife Conservation Partners, a consortium of 47 organizations that represent the interests of America’s millions of hunter conservationists, professional wildlife and natural resource managers, outdoor recreation users, conservation educators and wildlife scientists. In their “Wildlife for the 21st  Century: Volume V” document, the groups express concern about the potential for wholesale transfer of public lands to the states.  

Having quality places to hunt and fish is a driving concern. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 72 percent of western hunters depend on public land for access. Yet, access is shrinking as urban sprawl continues. 

According to “Wildlife for the 21st Century,” a survey in 2012 found that 23 percent of hunters lost access to hunting land, and 20 percent of anglers reported losing access to certain waters. 

Lack of access has secondary effects. Wildlife can overpopulate and create additional management issues. Hunting license sales decline. This reduces funds needed by state fish and wildlife agencies for conservation delivery. Access restrictions hurt hunter recruitment and retention. Without a decent place to hunt and shoot, fewer people participate.


Dyroff said the NWTF believes “the solution lies in improved mechanisms, collaboration and communication related to federal land management.”

He points to NWTF’s work with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership on the Sportsman’s Access Campaign. So far, nearly 34,000 people have signed an online petition and learned more about the threats related to public land conversion. 

“We’ve also joined a broad coalition of conservation partners that has reached out to both presidential candidates to request they maintain a strong public-lands agenda if elected,” Dyroff said. 

Many organizations in the AWCP support legislation authorizing the sale of targeted public lands without high conservation value to generate funds to buy high priority conservation public lands. Especially desirable are lands that improve hunting, fishing, shooting and other recreational access, and protect important wildlife habitat.

Consolidation of large tracts can make sense and, in some cases, swapping or selling smaller tracts of federal land surrounded by private lands or vice versa also might work. Access to these “landlocked” parcels can create challenges, as the federal agencies are constantly tapped for road improvements, culvert repairs, easement management and more to allow landowners access to their adjacent private lands, Dyroff explained.            

“Wildlife for the 21st Century” noted that improved collaboration requires better alignment of federal with state habitat management and the opening of federal lands to state agencies for official wildlife management work. 

Dyroff said NWTF members can make an impact by contacting legislators to let them know how important federal lands are to conservation and the preservation of America’s hunting heritage.

“Join the coalition against the wholesale transfer of public lands and help educate your friends, the conservation community and general public on the benefits of federal lands,” Dyroff said.

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