Debunked: 4 Myths About America’s Parks and Public Lands

Fact-checking four of the most pervasive myths used by anti-conservation land takeover proponents.

March 22, 2016
Republished with permission of The Wilderness Society

As presidential hopefuls tour the country, some candidates are spreading false rhetoric about our national public lands, how they originated and to whom these lands “rightfully” belong. The standoff at Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge has shed light on the extremist views of a vocal minority, but the reality is that most Americans do not agree with the agenda to turn our national public lands—such as parks, forests and refuges—over to state and local authorities.

Below are four factually incorrect statements about public lands and responses to them from leading property law, land policy and economic experts from across the West.

Myth: The federal government “owns” a vast majority of acreage in the West, locking Americans off lands that rightfully belong to them.

Fact: Our national public lands already belong to all Americans, who may access them at any time for recreation and enjoyment.

Expert opinion from John Freemuth:  

Our national public lands are owned by us all. The federal government manages the land for the benefit of all Americans. The laws passed by Congress to guide agencies in their management make that clear. As former Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus has said, these are public lands, not federal lands.

Our parks, forests, refuges and many other public lands are managed for a variety of uses by citizens of the United States, and often visitors from around the world. We all value these lands for the variety they provide: wilderness, grazing, mining, wildlife protection, clean water, off-road vehicle activities—the list is long. Because of this congressionally defined purpose, agencies must adjust and balance those uses to reduce conflict. Not every use can occur on every acre of land, but this is not “locking up” public lands; it is trying to best allocate the competing interests the public has in enjoying, protecting and sometimes making a profit off these lands. This is a hard task.

More and more citizens have come to see that talking together and collaborating on land use decisions is the best way to guide how these forests, parks and refuges will be handed down to the next generation. It’s also the way to help agencies make these decisions and gives us more proof that these are indeed the public’s lands. They are one of the best places to practice democracy.


Myth: The U.S. government is obligated give these lands back to western states, their rightful owners.

Fact: The claim that the U.S. government is under any legal obligation to give some or all of the public lands to western states lacks any credible legal foundation.

Expert opinion from John Leshy:

There is nothing to “give back.” The vast majority of the public lands―those collectively owned by the American people and held by the U.S. government―were never owned by the western states. Reframing the question to, “Is the U.S. government under any legal obligation to transfer to western states some or all of the public lands within their borders?” the answer is clearly “no.”

Ever since the nation’s founding in the late eighteenth century, it was the U.S. government, and not individual states, that took title to land acquired from Native American Tribes and foreign governments―as in, for example, the Louisiana Purchase and the Treaty with Mexico ending the Mexican War.  The U.S. Constitution adopted in 1789 contains a so-called “Property Clause” specifically giving the U.S. Congress full authority to make all “needful rules and regulations” regarding the “territory or other property” belonging to the United States.  More than two hundred years of experience and numerous U.S. Supreme Court decisions have settled that Congress’s power under the Property Clause is not subject to state veto. Indeed, the Court has repeatedly described that congressional power as “without limitations,” most recently in a unanimous decision in the late 1970s.  Accordingly, it is clear beyond any reasonable doubt that the national political process decides what will be done with the public lands and how they will be managed.

The U.S. Constitution also gives the U.S. Congress complete power over the admission of new states to the Union. Beginning with the admission of Ohio in 1803, the Congress has made increasingly generous grants of public lands to newly admitted states. In return, it has required each new state to agree that it has no claim to any public lands not granted to it by the U.S.

Adding all this up, the claim that the U.S. government is under some sort of legal obligation to give some or all of the public lands to western states lacks any credible legal foundation. I am confident it would not be given serious consideration by the courts.   

Myth: The idea of states taking over public lands is popular in the West and will improve the economy.

Fact: State control of our shared public lands would result in loss of access to places that support a $646 billion-dollar economic engine in America every year.

Expert opinion from Jessica Wahl:

Outdoor recreation in our country contributes $646 billion dollars a year to the U.S. economy, employing 6.1 million Americans with homegrown jobs and generating $80 billion in local, state and national tax revenue. In fact, the outdoor recreation industry is bigger than you might think, with Americans spending more on outdoor apparel, gear and outdoor recreation-related trips than they spend on pharmaceuticals, car purchases or filling those cars up with gas. The impact of that spending ripples out beyond initial expenditures on gear. Outdoor enthusiasts spend money on day and overnight trips, and on travel-related expenses such as airfares, rental cars, lodging, campgrounds, restaurants, groceries, gasoline and souvenirs. They pay for river guides and outfitters, lift tickets and ski lessons, entrance fees, licenses and much more. Their spending supports innumerable small business owners. And they visit public lands that are cared for by land managers, park rangers, nonprofits and volunteers.

The foundation of this vibrant outdoor recreation economy is our shared national parks, forests, grasslands and waters accessible and open for all to enjoy. More than 140 million Americans recreate outside every year, from their backyards to the backcountry. These open lands are an inspiration today and for future adventurers. We must place a high value on outdoor recreation for healthy communities, sustainable economies and healthy people.  Last year, the National Park Service broke visitor numbers and it is poised to break that record again with this year’s centennial celebration of our national parks.

In the 2016 Colorado College “State of the Rockies” poll, 72 percent of respondents said national public lands—such as national forests, national monuments, or wildlife refuges—help their state economy.

If states gain control of our shared parks and public lands, they will seek to maximize revenue by leasing or selling these lands to private entities, which means we all will be locked out of places where we now enjoy hiking, hunting, biking or camping with friends and family.

The idea of robbing us of our shared heritage is outrageous, unsubstantiated and would be a major blow to the outdoor recreation economy in communities across this country. Public lands must remain in public hands.

Myth: States can afford to manage large areas of public land.

Fact: Taking over public lands would cost states millions of dollars every year and force increased commodity development to cover the fiscal shortfall.

Expert opinion from John Ruple:

$3.8 billion.  That’s how much the federal government paid the 11 contiguous Western states in 2014 under the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, Mineral Leasing Act, and other revenue-sharing programs tied specifically to the federal lands within their borders.  States seeking to take over our shared public lands would need to generate enough money from those lands to replace this revenue and to cover new management costs—or they would need to cut existing programs like K-12 education to cover the shortfall.

Utah’s own Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel found that a state takeover of public lands would cost Utah millions of dollars every year—the mid-range estimate of new management costs exceeds new revenue by $85.5 million annually.  That’s close to the $100 million annual shortfall we estimated previously and would force the state to dramatically increase mining, logging, grazing, and oil and gas development just to break even.

Some counter that states would be “better” managers and therefore incur lower costs.  State trust lands do generate more revenue per acre than Forest Service or BLM managed lands, but that’s because, as in Utah’s case, “the state must manage the lands … in the most prudent and profitable manner possible.” Similar trust land management mandates apply throughout the West.  Relying on state trust land revenue projections to justify a state takeover hides a radical and unavoidable management shift from multiple-use to profit maximization.

Then there’s uncertainty.  As we’ve seen, oil and natural gas prices are volatile.  In Utah, where 93% of the revenue derived from the targeted lands comes from mineral development, revenue would fluctuate wildly year-to-year.  Costs would also fluctuate because wildfire suppression costs vary from year-to-year, and states would presumably inherit fire suppression costs.  Large wildfires in Idaho alone cost over $95 million to fight during 2015, more than 20 times suppression costs just a year earlier.  One bad fire year cost could decimate state budgets.

Finally, states are laying claim to the land, not the trucks, tools, and other resources needed to manage the land.  How will states cover these upfront costs?  Will they mortgage or lease the land to pay the bills?  The numbers just don’t add up, and Americans will be left to pay the price.