Introduction to State Land & Resource Agencies

Table of Contents


Between them, the fifty states own hundreds of millions of acres of land, including 57 million acres of state forests, 12 million acres of state parks, and at least 20 million acres of state wildlife areas or refuges. State park, forest, and fish & wildlife agencies spend more than $4 billion per year managing the lands and resources within their care and collect more than $2.5 billion in user fees.

Readers of Different Drummer know that the nation's federal lands are often used as sources of pork; that important resources such as watersheds and nongame species are generally underfunded; and that federal managers frequently have incentives to lose money overproducing other resources such as timber and livestock forage. Since some members of Congress are talking about turning some or all of the federal domain over to the states, we wanted to know if the states have solved some or all of these problems. In particular, we decided to focus on fiscal issues since these are easily measureable and are the basis of one of the main arguments for transferring federal lands to the states.

To learn what we could about state management, Different Drummer asked the more than 150 state forestry, parks, and fish & wildlife agencies for information about their revenues, expenses, funding sources, administrative structures, and histories. We received detailed responses from well over half the agencies. Thanks to the national associations of state park directors and state foresters, we also have data for all parks and forestry agencies. To round out the data, we collected by telephone basic financial data from fish & wildlife agencies in all but three states.

Differences Between Agencies Greater Than States

We learned that the differences between states are often smaller than the differences between the ways the states as a whole have historically distinguished parks, forests, and fish & wildlife from one another: Ironically, these differences are largely due to federal actions. Federal land grants to the states came with strings attached that led most western states to manage their forests at a profit. Federal monetary grants for fish & wildlife come with strings attached that require states to let fish & wildlife agencies keep license revenues. And the influence of and competition from the National Park Service led most states to go along with losing money on state parks.

Differences Shrinking

At the same time, the differences between the agencies are shrinking with time: As policy makers and managers, state legislators and agencies have been less than perfect. Timber sales on state forest lands provoke controversies over their effects on wildlife and recreation. Fish and wildlife agencies are accused of emphasizing game to the exclusion of--and sometimes to the detriment of--nongame. State parks departments are sometimes considered too development-oriented.

In at least one area--fiscal management--the states are a bit less imperfect than their federal counterparts. Most states insure that revenues from fish & wildlife resources cover their costs, and state forest land management often produces significant profits.

Most state park agencies are run at taxpayers' expense, but even they outshine the federal government in some respects: Where the National Park Service spends nearly $5.50 of tax dollars per visitor, state park agencies spend only about $1. But the state subsidy per acre is ten times higher than for federal parks. Yet several state park systems cost their taxpayers virtually nothing at all.

The states have tried almost every conceivable organizational structure for their natural resource agencies. Some states have a land board consisting of elected officials such as the governor and treasurer. Others have specially elected land commissioners. And others have boards appointed by the governor or other officials.

States combine their forest, fish & wildlife, and park agencies in every possible way--but often with strong regional trends. Fifteen states, including most in the far west, place the three agencies in completely separate departments, while fifteen more, including most Great Lakes and Midwestern states, house them as divisions in a single natural resources department. Nine states, including many in the Great Plains, combine wildlife and parks but keep forestry distinct, while nine others, including most of the New England states, combine forestry and parks and keep wildlife distinct. Just two--New York and Missouri--combine wildlife and forestry with parks in a different department.

Are States More Innovative?

All of these structures allow for good comparisons to see what works best. But they do not demonstrate that the states are far more innovative than the feds. Instead, the differences mostly reflect decisions made long ago, often in response to early political alliances formed by conservationists in each region. With few exceptions, the agencies today seem pretty much locked in to whatever administrative structure was created for them by their legislatures decades ago.

This doesn't mean that the state agencies aren't innovative. But we found that much of their innovation is geared less toward efficient management than to getting more money from taxpayers. Nevertheless, the best examples of state land management offer useful lessons for federal managers and policy makers. In particular, this issue will point to the agencies running New Hampshire and Texas parks and also to the trust lands in several western states.

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