Should a Single Federal Agency Be in Charge Of 20% Of American Land?


Ken Salazar has been the Secretary of the Interior for over four years. On Wednesday, it was reported that Salazar informed President Obama that he will be stepping down in March. Most people often overlook the Secretary of the Interior since his job mostly entails looking after public land, but it should be noted that he is eighth in order of presidential succession!

With the Department of Interior (DOI) in the limelight, this may be a good opportunity for us to reevaluate its necessity. The DOI is no small department, as it has 70,500 employees, oversees 500 million acres (accounting 20% of U.S. Territory), and effectively owns majority of the land of 1.7 million Native Americans. We need to seriously consider the costs and benefits of having such a large organization own and operate such a large portion of the U.S.

The DOI is chump change relative to a lot of other wasteful bureaucracies, and as far as spending goes it in general funds itself. But I would rather argue that there would be better parks if they were run by the private sector. Time and time again there are examples of well-run and relatively low cost private parks. The best part is that many are free to enter. Those that are not, the people who want to go to them finance the parks, and not by people who never have or never will venture to see them, unlike public ones.

Public Land leasing has lead to what economists call the tragedy of the commons. In short, the people who lease the land do not "internalize" the costs they impose on everyone else very well. A good example of this is clear-cutting on public lands. Since the leases to cutting rights are bought for a short period of time, the lumber companies have an incentive to cut down as much as they can, which includes cutting down wood that is not at maturity.

This is not only environmentally unsound, but also extremely wasteful. In places like the south, there are large swaths of forest that are incredibly well managed, grown to maturity, scouted for disease, and protected against forest fire. Has anyone ever wondered why the west, where the vast majority of public land is, has by far more forest fires? Many of these landowners will even let hunters on their land for very little to help rid them on invasive species such as wild pigs.

The biggest indictment against the DOI is its policies towards Indian reservations.  Native Americans who live on them are consistently in the bottom 1% of the U.S. population in terms of income. This can be attributed to federal policies largely enacted by the DOI. The DOI dictates many of the policies that affect Native lands. Since much of the land is owned communally the lands are largely barren and some estimates say that private lands on the same reservations are 30%-90% productive making those who own them much richer. The DOI would make Native Americans considerably better off and freer if they privatized the land in the hands of the Indians who live there.

Ultimately, the federal government should not be in the business of owning land and national parks. The U.S. was designed to have a small federal government, and that is why the vast majority of nationally owned property is in the western states who joined the union as states' rights were in recline. If government-run parks are necessary, they should be funded and run by the states they reside in, since the vast majority of their use will be by those most local to it. Most of the parks privatization has been done by states government who, in general, are much more cost conscious.