8 ways to reform the Interior Department
© Greg Nash

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpOver 100 lawmakers consistently voted against chemical safeguards: study CNN's Anderson Cooper unloads on Trump Jr. for spreading 'idiotic' conspiracy theories about him Cohn: Jamie Dimon would be 'phenomenal' president MORE may have made his name in real estate, but as president his administration now oversees an even bigger empire: the federal estate. At 640 million acres, the federal government owns more than one-quarter of the land in the United States.

When it comes to resolving the many competing demands across this vast landscape, the job now falls to Ryan Zinke. The former congressman from Montana was confirmed as Interior Secretary last month and has promised a “bold” restructuring of the department. But he may have to do so with even fewer resources if Trump’s budget — which calls for a 12 percent cut to Interior — is approved.


In a new report published by the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), we outline eight reform ideas for the Interior Department that would improve its management by harnessing economic incentives and market principles — and without relying entirely on Washington D.C. for more funding:


1. Make national parks less reliant on congressional appropriations. Zinke has promised to make the $12 billion national park maintenance backlog a top priority. But to do so he’s going to have to make major changes to the National Park Service’s operations and maintenance. Fixing a leaky sewer system or crumbling road is not the type of ribbon-cutting project that politicians want to fund. However, the Park Service can harness public-private partnerships for infrastructure projects, outsource its routine operations to the private sector, and remove its own restrictions on spending user fees at the parks where they are collected.

2. Stop acquiring more land and start addressing critical needs on existing lands. Instead of using programs such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund to enlarge the federal estate, as is often done, the federal government’s land acquisition funds should be redirected to address critical needs on existing public lands, including maintenance, habitat restoration, and management shortfalls. Acquiring more federal lands at a time when we cannot adequately maintain our current lands is irresponsible conservation.

3. Allow greater flexibility for managing public lands while retaining federal oversight and accountability. Federal land management has long been controversial, but there is widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo. Transferring lands to state control is unlikely to happen. But the Interior Department could borrow a lesson from charter schools by creating “charter forests” on public lands. As resource economist Robert H. Nelson has explained, under such a system, public ownership could be retained while allowing local communities to exert more control over management decisions.

4. Make endangered species an asset instead of a liability. Only 2 percent of the species listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act have been recovered and delisted. Instead of penalizing landowners who find endangered species on their property, the Interior Department should make use of voluntary agreements, such as conservation easements and habitat rental agreements, which proactively reward private landowners for enhancing species habitat.

5. Resolve grazing disputes with contracts, not armed conflicts. Recent disputes like the occupation of a wildlife refuge in Oregon last year are the result of policies that undermine grazing rights as secure property rights. The feds should establish permanent, negotiable grazing permits and allow them to be transferable — even to environmentalists. That would give competing groups a more efficient way to resolve disputes over the western range: by trading instead of raiding.

6. Give tribes more authority over their natural resources. The government pays lip service to tribal sovereignty, but it prevents tribes from making their own decisions about their land and resources. Nearly every decision in Indian Country requires the approval of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. Tribes should be able to make land-use decisions without approval from the BIA, and the feds should remove the regulatory obstacles that often prevent tribes from developing their natural resources if they choose to do so.

7. Harness water markets. California’s record snowfall this year may have temporarily buried memories of its decades-long drought, but water scarcity is the new normal. To minimize the environmental and economic impact of future droughts, Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation can eliminate water subsidies, remove unnecessary barriers to trading, and clarify water rights between states and users to encourage conservation and trading.

8. Adopt market-based policies to reduce conflicts over oil and gas development. Decisions about energy development on public lands are politically determined. But there’s a better way: Lease auctions should be open to environmental and recreation groups, as well as energy developers. When development threatens environmental values, such groups could purchase and hold the development rights instead of pursuing endless lawsuits and political battles.

By harnessing market principles, the Interior Department could fulfill its mission in a more effective manner while producing better environmental and economic results — and it could do so with fewer dollars from Washington D.C.

Shawn Regan is a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman, Montana, where Reed Watson is the executive director. They are contributors to the report “A New Landscape: 8 Ideas for the Interior Department.”

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.