Fretwell & Regan: Divided Lands – State vs. Federal Management in the West


There is a great divide in the United States. Land in the East is mostly privately owned, while nearly half of the land in the West is owned by the federal government. In recent years, several western states have passed, introduced, or considered resolutions demanding that the federal government transfer much of this land to state ownership.1 These efforts are motivated by local concerns over federal land management, including restrictions on natural resource development, poor land stewardship, limitations on access, and low financial returns.

The resolutions reflect a sentiment in many western states that state control will result in better public land management. To date, however, there has been little research comparing the costs of state and federal land management. Most existing studies assume that the costs of federal land management would be the same under state management and do not consider the different management goals, regulatory requirements, and incentive structures that govern state and federal lands.

The purpose of this report is to compare state and federal land management in the West. In particular, we examine the revenues and expenditures associated with federal land management and compare them with state trust land management in four western states: Montana, Idaho, New Mexico, and Arizona. These states, which encompass a wide range of landscapes, natural resources, and land management agencies, allow for a robust comparison.

Our analysis will help explain why revenues and expenditures may differ between state and federal land agencies and explore some of the implications of transferring federal lands to the states. We find that state trust agencies produce far greater financial returns from land management than federal land agencies. In fact, the federal government often loses money managing valuable natural resources. States, on the other hand, consistently generate significant amounts of revenue from state trust lands. On average, states earn more revenue per dollar spent than the federal government for each of the natural resources we examined, including timber, grazing, minerals, and recreation.


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