Policy Memo

To: Representative Jason Chaffetz

From: Jack Kennedy

Subject: Utilizing Federal Lands in the West

Date: April 23, 2018


Background and Introduction

Since the American Revolution federal land ownership has been a prominent disputed issue.[i] Considering roughly 28% of the land area in the United States is owned by the federal government, it logically follows that some would take issue with such vast ownership.[ii] Following the Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s, the issue has gradually gained national prominence. In states with large federal land ownership, particularly western states with vast expanses of uninhabited space, the issue has gained priority and in turn birthed a fight between the local, state, and federal government.[iii] Recently, Utah and several neighboring states have fought hard to obtain substantial plots of land from the federal government and transfer the ownership to state/local governments or private organizations. To no surprise, a rift has emerged between those that believe that the federal government does a good job of preserving these public lands, and others that find the federal government to do an inadequate job of understanding the wants and needs of the local public.

Three logical solutions to this issue offer three entirely different sets of outcomes, each of which appeal to a different demographic. The three most rational solutions that are feasible to implement include: 1) leaving the ownership as is (no change), 2) transferring federal land to state and private owners, and 3) prohibiting the transfer of federal land entirely. In order to come to an adequate and fair evaluation of these options, it is essential to address a number of factors, including their political efficacy, economic and environmental impact, and plausibility to implement.

1) No change:

In the case of leaving the policy as is, it is easy to determine the potential outcomes considering much would remain the same. Politically, everything would remain the same, since no side stands to gain from no change. In addition, this route is extremely plausible since it would take no effort to implement a policy that is already in existence. The federalism approach allows for flexibility, collaboration, and experimentation.[iv] Economically, the federal government has a better resource pool to fund the maintenance of these lands. While it may not be economically beneficial to local communities, the cost of footing the lands maintenance is likely greater than potential profits. A lack of change also represents the status quo with regards to the environmental impact. While environmental issues, like hunting and grazing, currently exist on these lands, the federal government has numerous regulations in place to protect the land as a whole. Any change could result in a loss of these protections.

2) Transfer to state/local government or private organizations:

Unlike implementing no change at all, a possible transfer of federal lands to state governments or private organizations is a far more polarizing issue with more apparent impacts. Historically, this agenda has been pushed by citizens and organizations that are close to large plots of federal and stand to benefit from their transfer. Both Democrats and Republicans more distanced from the issue, however, have repeatedly resisted this ideology.[v],[vi] Implementing a transfer would be quite difficult, especially at first and would cause political and justice issues.[vii] It would require a thorough blueprint to determine the initial regulations and management of these lands[viii] Economically, a transfer could potentially be beneficial to both parties. The federal government would benefit from the sale profits as well as no longer needing to allocate resources to the lands management. The state government and private organizations would benefit from being able to better use the land for their own personal needs and profit.[ix] A transfer of the land from the federal government would have a negative environmental impact in most instances. The federal government currently has strict regulations on their lands that preserve their existence, but state governments and private organizations would likely create entirely new regulations that would be less concerned with preservation.

3) Prohibit any land transfer:

A block of any land transfer from the federal government would result in outrage from capitalists and libertarians that encourage economic development and citizens of Western states directly affected by the use of federally owned land. Implementing this policy would not be difficult, as some of the current responsibilities of the states and lower forms of government would simply be transferred to the federal government. This would presumably have a minimal economic impact on the federal government, as they already have existing structures in place and would only have to allocate a few more resources to managing the land. It would, however, limit the economic opportunities of local businesses and communities. Environmentally, this would result in stability since the federal government does a sufficient job of protecting and preserving their lands, with services such as the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).ii Both entities focus on preservation, conservation and the concept of multiple use.


As it stands, there is no solution that appeases the interests of everyone. With the potential impacts and influences laid out, it is then essential to analyze the implications of each policy. Obviously, public opinion is an essential factor in determining the needs and wants of the people, which would allow policy makers to accurately address the issues that they find important. In this case, public opinion is split into two camps—with one side adamantly against the transfer of federal land and the other opposed to federal ownership—although most of the oppostion for federal ownership comes from a small portion of businesses and individuals extremely proximate to said lands. However, there has been growing bipartisan support for the federal ownership and protection.[x],[xi] With regards to implementation, a policy that is currently in place has the upper hand on policies that would require change. The federal government has a proven control on the management of public lands, but a transfer of land to the states or block on any transfer would necessitate a restructuring of the way that the land is managed. New practices would be required, and if the federal government were to transfer the land, states would have to create an entirely new set of rules and regulations for the land since the responsibility would fall solely on them. When analyzing the economic impact of each proposed policy, one must also take the environmental impact into account as well. A full-scale transfer of federal lands to local and state institutions may benefit the economies of surrounding towns and cities, but could have negative impacts on the nation as a whole.ii Whereas the federal government typically seeks to use the land for majority interest, a transfer could cause more small scale interests to take precedent. The same idea applies to the potential environmental impact. The federal government has numerous regulations in place to preserve the habitats in these lands, and a transfer could result in a destruction of said regulations.ii While this will not certainly result in a destruction of habitats, it could allow for the land to be exploited in ways that it currently cannot be. Ultimately, each proponent relates to one another and must be taken into account as a wholistic entity when determining the efficacy of each proposed policy.


Based on this information, we recommend leaving the policy as it is and not selling the land (see appendix for numerical breakdown). This policy allows for the most flexibility and adjustment for individual cases. It also has the most political support, is economically viable and generally cost effective. While there are different interests for the land and changing social expectations, not transferring the land, but allowing different parts to be used for responsible and appropriate uses seems to be the best policy. Perhaps, the federal government needs to do a better job of having its institutions involved with multiple use, but as it stands, leaving the land be would appear to be the most desireable policy.




On my honor, I have neither given nor received unauthorized information regarding this work, I have followed and will continue to observe all regulations regarding it, and I am unaware of any violation of the Honor Code by others.


Politics Implementation Cost Environmental Impact Weighted Score
Criteria Weight 0.25 0.25 0.25 0.25
Option 1 (No Change) 3 3 2 2 2.5
Option 2 1 1 2 1 1.25
Option 3 1 2 2 3 2










[i][i] Nick Lawton, “Utah’s Transfer of Public Land,”Vermont’s Journal of Environmental Law. Vol. 16: 5-6.

[ii] Ross Gorte et al., “Federal land ownership: overview and data.” Congressional Research Service 42346 (2012).

[iii] Dohnald Kochan, “Public Lands and the Federal Governemnt’s Compact-Based ‘Duty to Dispose,’Brigham Young University Law Review (2014), 1147.

[iv] “Down by the Chesapeake Bay: Cooperative Federalism, Judicial Intervention, and the Boundary between State Land Use and Federal Environmental Law.” Energy Law Review. Vol. 38:265-6.

[v] Juliet Eilperin, “Facing backlash, Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz withdraws bill to transfer federal land to states.” Washington Post. February 2, 2017.

[vi] Dohnald Kochan, “Public Lands and the Federal Governemnt’s Compact-Based ‘Duty to Dispose,’Brigham Young University Law Review (2014), 1150-5.

[vii] S.M. Holtslag-Broekhof, “Perceived (In)justice of Public Land Acquisition,” Agricultural Environmental Ethics 29 (2016) : 170-171.

[viii] Paul Jackus et al., “Western Public Lands and the Fiscal Implications of a Transfer to States,” Land Economics 93 no. 3 (2017): 382-3

[ix] Paul Jackus et al., “Western Public Lands and the Fiscal Implications of a Transfer to States,” Land Economics 93 no. 3 (2017): 382-3, 386.

[x] Alex Robinson, “House Bill Would Sell 3.3 Million Acres of Federal Land.” Outdoor Life. January 30, 2017.

[xi] Caty Enders, “Republicans move to sell off 3.3m acres of national land, sparking rallies.” The Guardian. January 31, 2017.


Works Cited:

Day, Cathleen1. 2017. “Down by the Chesapeake Bay: Cooperative Federalism, Judicial Intervention, and the Boundary Between State Land Use and Federal Environmental Law.” Energy Law Journal 38(1): 253–67. Ebsco (February 9, 2018).

Eilperin, Juliet. 2017. “Facing Backlash, Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz Withdraws Bill to Transfer Federal Land to the States.” Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/02/02/facing-backlash-utah-rep-jason-chaffetz-withdraws-bill-to-transfer-federal-land-to-the-states/ (February 9, 2018).

Enders, Caty. 2017. “Republicans Move to Sell off 3.3m Acres of National Land, Sparking Rallies.” the Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jan/31/public-lands-sell-congress-bureau-management-chaffetz (February 9, 2018).

Gorte, R.W., Vincent, C.H., Hanson, L.A. and Rosenblum, M.R., 2012. Federal land ownership: overview and data. Congressional Research Service, 42346.

Holtslag-broekhof, S. M. et al. 2016. “Perceived (In)Justice of Public Land Acquisition.” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics: 167–84. Ebsco (February 9, 2018)

“House Bill Would Sell 3.3 Million Acres of Federal Public Land.” Outdoor Life. https://www.outdoorlife.com/house-bill-would-sell-33-million-acres-federal-public-land (February 9, 2018).

Jakus, Paul M. et al. 2017. “Western Public Lands and the Fiscal Implications of a Transfer to States.” Land Economics 93(3): 371–89. Ebsco (February 9, 2018).

Kochan, Donald J. 2013. “Public Lands and the Federal Government’s Compact-Based ‘Duty to Dispose’: A Case Study of Utah’s H.B. 148-The Transfer of Public Lands Act.” Brigham Young University Law Review 2013(5): 1133–90. Ebsco (February 9, 2018).

Lawton, Nick. 2014. “Utah’s Transfer of Public Lands Act: Demanding a Gift of Federal Lands.” Vermont Journal of Environmental Law 16(1): 1–37. Ebsco (February 9, 2018)

Mantel, Barbara. 2016. “Managing Western Lands: Should the U.S. Turn over Federal Lands to the States?” CQ Researcher 26(16): 361–84.

“Stop the Privatization of Public Waters in Louisiana.” Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. https://www.backcountryhunters.org/la-publicwater-petition (February 9, 2018).


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