In his Oct. 6 blog post, “A local approach to our public lands,” Rep. Chris StewartChris StewartEPA administrator: We don't plan to return 'verbatim' to Obama-era water regulation On management of Utah public lands, Biden should pursue an accountable legislative process Georgia AG rejects prosecutor's request for Rayshard Brooks case to be reassigned MORE (R-Utah) wrote that “not only can states manage public lands, they can do it for less money and with better results” and that wildfire management, grazing allocations, and energy policy would all be running smoothly, if only the states were in charge.   

While I can’t defend every action of the federal government, the notion that our federal lands would be better managed by individual states is fundamentally flawed. 


America’s public lands system was developed more than 100 years ago by leading conservationists, like Theodore Roosevelt, who witnessed the destruction of our lands and waters in an unsustainable system of unregulated mining, overgrazing, and overcutting. They acted to create a national system of public lands that could be utilized for the benefit of the American public for generations to come. 

America’s 438 million public acres of National Forest and Bureau of Land Management lands are managed under the principles of multiple-use and sustained yield. Under a multiple-use mandate, public lands must be managed for many different uses, including energy and fiber production, outdoor recreation, and habitat improvement, so as to best meet the needs of the American people. Sustained yield requires that resources taken from those lands be done in a sustainable manner, so as not to deplete the resource over time. It doesn’t matter if you are an off-road vehicle enthusiast from Utah, a birdwatcher from Wyoming, or a rancher whose cattle grazes public lands in Montana, this system finds a place for all of us.  

By calling for the handover of federal lands and their management to individual states, Stewart and his allies are essentially calling for an end to the sustainable management of our public lands, and a return to the 19th century approach of short-term profiteering at the expense of the American people. Here’s why: All of the Western states require in their constitutions that state lands be managed to maximize profit. Under this model, lands that can’t produce maximum coal, timber, energy, or grazing leases are sold off to the highest bidder.  

If we were to transfer America’s public lands to individual states, millions of acres would be sold off to billionaires and global corporations—people who neither understand nor value America’s future or outdoor heritage. This may sound crazy, but Western states have a proven track record of selling off their lands, and every Western state has fewer acres of state land than it once did at statehood. 

Some individual states have studied the takeover of America’s public lands, and their findings have consistently shown that it would be extremely difficult for the states to take on the challenge. An Idaho study projected a land management deficit of $111 million per year, even if the state increased logging levels from the current 145,000 board feet by half a billion board feet annually. And researchers at the University of Utah concluded that if the state were to acquire federal lands, the public would be stuck with less access, more fees, and fewer opportunities to provide input.  

America’s public lands are not managed perfectly, and there are real management issues that need to be addressed. However, the idea that federal public lands should be handed over to individual states is not only flawed, it is never going to happen. Instead of advocating for ideas without a future, we’re encouraging lawmakers to roll up their sleeves and work with public lands stakeholders to solve problems. From legislation that would end Forest Service “fire borrowing” to innovations in active management of national forests, there are a lot of serious proposals on the table.

Fosburgh is the president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, an organization working to guarantee quality places for Americans to hunt and fish.