National Lands & The Future

A central tenet to the conservative viewpoint is a belief that smaller government creates more room for “We the People.” We adamantly fight for this in healthcare, with taxes, and everyday regulation, but have yet to see a large push for this when it comes to national lands. While there are not claims to completely remove all forms of regulation from these lands, which would be detrimental to the land and the goods produced by them, there have been ideas published to change the power over from the government to a solution that provides greater control to the people and allows for market forces to work more adequately.

Currently, there are four major agencies in the federal government, split between two departments, that make up the structure for national land management. In the Department of the Interior, there is the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. In the Department of Agriculture, there is the National Forest Service Based off of the missions stated on the websites, all of the departments seem to have a common goal of conserving the natural resources in the United States, all just with different areas of specialty.

All have separate budgets that come from the federal government, which means they carry pork spending that bloats the federal spending and is used irresponsibly. In addition to this, being run by the federal government creates regulations and red tape for those wanting to enjoy the natural beauty of the country and what it has to offer. As conservatives, we fight against this in all other areas and it is time to bring it to the environmental side of the government. Here are a couple of the proposed solutions.

Fiduciary Trusts

In 2009, the Cato Institute published a policy analysis by Randal O’Toole arguing that Congress should transfer federal lands to fiduciary trusts. O’Toole puts forth that two types of trusts could be created in order to ensure protection of specifies and certain lands: creating a trust of marketable resources, and a separate trust of non market resources.

Their missions would be to “maximize revenue from public land management while preserving the productive capacity of the land”and “maximize the preservation, and as appropriate, reservation of the natural ecosystem, historic structures, and prehistoric artifacts important to the history of America” respectively.

The proposed policy would allow Congress to divide the states into smaller regions, estimated at about 60 to 120 regions per trust. Each region’s trusts would work jointly to achieve the goals of their specific area.

Funding for the trusts, O’Toole says, could come from a one time seed fund from Congress that is equal to the amount that the four agencies received in the last fiscal year before the establishment of the trusts. After this, the funding would be based on the the net income of the land. This could be from user fees or from the selling products of the land, such as timber, at market value. If the fund cannot keep enough money, he suggests that trust can merge.

As for the trust’s beneficiaries, O’Toole proposed that it should be our nation’s citizens, therefore giving legal standing to all. He does note that “as the trust missions are careful defined, the amount of litigation is minimized” as a response to the concern allowing all citizens to be beneficiaries would create issues.

Finally, to run the trust, since Congress and the federal government intervention would be removed following the implementation of the trust, as one of the last things, O’Toole argues that Congress should create a “friends of the trust” association. He states that it would be a “tax-exempt organization that would seek private contributions to preserve, restore, and add to the public lands.” These groups would be open to anyone and membership acquired by paying a yearly fee. Additionally, these groups will help fund the trusts by being allowed sought out private contributions and donors. The associations would also overview hiring and management of the lands.

O’Toole ends with discussing positives of turning to this system, pointing out how it will increase efficiency, ensure sustainability, and provide the private land management that takes the reins of the federal government off another area.

Charter Forests

Another idea proposed by the Property and Environment Research center, written by Robert Nelson, borrows from a system that has been a hot topic in education: charter forests. This proposed idea brings up only one agency, the U.S Forest Service, but has the potential to have ideas applied to the other three. Nelson compares the failure of the national forest system to that of inner city schools, pointing out how charter schools have helped them improve.

Nelson lays out key principles in the beginning of his arguments, most importantly that the lands would remain federally owned, but would be controlled and management boards of directors. He also notes that they would receive public  support to cover parts of the operation costs. Like the Cato policy analysis, they would have the authority to set the user fees, meaning that opening the door to market basket fees is possible, discussing that markets and signals provided should and would be able to play more a role.

This switch to a charter based forest system would allow a rebranding of the parks, since its slow decline and failure that Nelson points out early on. If Congress is not able to go as far as establishing trusts, they should at least be able to agree that something must be done to improve the situation.

In his proposal, he calls for the agencies to stop their use of one she fits all policies when it comes to national lands and their resources. By creating the charter forests, there will be more flexibility and better management that is tailored to the lands and resources needs.

There would be a lot of overcome to make this a reality. “In 2002, the Department of Agriculture’s budget proposal called for legislation to establish “charter forests” that would be administered outside the normal Forest Service structure,” Nelson says, which furthers his argument that there is long history of ideas and planning failure within these agencies. In order to make this a reality, the barriers would have to be overcome, and the agencies would need to be willing try something new, giving up control in certain areas.

While there are still flaws with the ways of implementing charter forests, the plan has a similar idea to O’Toole’s by having a board of directors run the forest. This would ensure efficiency, responsibility, and give people a chance to be apart of the board if they see an opportunity to improve any aspect of it.


While both O’Toole and Nelson provide insight to ways that we could reform the four agencies for the better to ensure lasting preservation of our nation’s lands and resources, there is still headway to be made in finding a solution. Financial responsibilities and funding will continue to play a large role in the decision making, as plans are created in the future to lessen the dependence on the federal government, as well as reduce wasteful spending.  Conservative solutions do exist, as we are presented with the opportunity to use innovative and responsible solutions to protect our greatest national treasures.

Bailey LaSage