GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush has announced he wants a sea change in the federal government’s land management practices.
In his Western Land Resource Management plan, which Bush released Oct. 21, 2015, the former Florida governor said federal land holdings are out of control — and therefore, so are expenses and Washington’s influence across the region.
"The federal government owns about half of the West, yet it continues to acquire more land," Bush said in the plan, which calls federal holdings "a liability to economic freedom and growth." He advocated more state and local control over these lands.
Does Washington really own half of Western states, and is it looking for more? We decided to survey this for ourselves.
The West vs. Washington
There’s no exact total of how much land Washington owns and manages, partly because the total is constantly changing, but it’s a lot. According to the most recent data in a 2012 Congressional Research Service report, the government owns about 635 million to 640 million acres, or about 28 percent of all the land in the country.
Most of that land is administered by three agencies in the Department of the Interior: the National Park Service (80 million acres); the Bureau of Land Management (248 million acres); and the Fish and Wildlife Service (89 million acres, plus another 217 million acres of marine refuges and monuments). In the U.S. Agriculture Department, the U.S. Forest Service is in charge of another 193 million acres. The Defense Department runs another 19 million acres in bases, training ranges and more. The rest is divided among several other departments and agencies.
There is not an equal split among states, however. To Bush’s point, the federal government owns about 47 percent of the land in 11 Western states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
If we head east of the Mississippi River, Washington owns and manages only about 4 percent.
This disparity is partly because of history. Most land in the West was at one time public, ranging from purchases from France, Mexico and Russia to land seized from Mexicans and Native Americans. The federal government has transferred land to private interests over the years and has focused on conservation during the last century, but these vast holdings have long been a contentious issue.
Many Republicans in Western state legislatures would prefer to keep land-use decisions local. One group called the American Lands Council, headed by Utah Republican state Rep. Ken Ivory, is leading the charge in pushing for transferring federal land to states.
The Council did not get back to us for this fact-check, but their website says the group wants federal lands transferred to states to "provide better public access, better environmental health, and better economic productivity." Bush’s plan calls for local control and a smaller federal footprint in general.
Conservationists and researchers fear the real reason states want these transfers is to sell or lease public lands to private developers for ranching, mining or forestry.
This land is our land
As Bush says, the federal government is looking to make more acquisitions.
His campaign pointed out the Interior and Agriculture departments made a fiscal year 2016 budget request that asked for almost $575 million for land acquisitions (plus $325 million for state conservation grants). The money was earmarked for acquisition projects across several federal agencies that ranged from national park lands to scenic trails to wildlife refuges.
That doesn’t necessarily mean those agencies will get that money. The 2016 budget request is dependent on the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a pot of cash pooled from fees on offshore oil and gas leases. Authorized in 1965, the fund is the main mechanism for land purchases and broad conservation efforts.
Congress is authorized to set aside as much as $900 million per year from this fund for land acquisition — note the 2016 request is for $900 million in all — but lawmakers rarely give conservation efforts that much. They usually shift the bulk of the money to other expenses and leave little for conservation efforts. Congress authorized $306 million total after a similar $900 million request in 2015.
Complicating matters this year is that Congress failed to reauthorize the fund when it expired on Sept. 30. Bush said in his plan he supported a permanent reauthorization of the fund.
"There are additional funding sources for federal land acquisitions, but they are not as significant as LWCF," said Martin Nie, director of the Bolle Center for People & Forests at the University of Montana. "And yes, federal agencies are often in the process of both acquiring more land and conveying (or exchanging) other federal lands."
Greg Zimmerman, policy director at the pro-conservation Center for Western Priorities, also pointed out that total federal acreage has fallen some over the years. That same CRS report concluded the five government agencies we mentioned earlier shed about 18 million acres between 1990 and 2010.
Most of that change is from the Bureau of Land Management getting rid of land in Alaska, where the federal government still owns about 62 percent of the state.
Bush said, "The federal government owns about half of the west, yet it continues to acquire more land."
He’s right that Washington owns about 47 percent of the land in the 11 most Western states. Government agencies also continue to request funds for land acquisitions, although the major source for these transactions recently expired. The federal government routinely acquires and disposes of land, but overall has less acreage now than it did 25 years ago.
We rate his statement Mostly True.