What is federal land management?
Federal lands store significant amounts of carbon and have the potential to sequester more with proper management. The federal government owns more than one-quarter of the land area of the United States, and nearly half of the land in western states. The majority of these lands is owned by either the USDA Forest Service, which manages 193 million acres of National Forests and National Grasslands, or the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages 244 million acres of predominantly grazing lands. The Forest Service and BLM both manage land for multiple uses, including recreation, habitat conservation, watershed stewardship, and natural resource utilization. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Park Service (NPS) also own significant forest and grassland resources, though their land management objectives vary.
How does federal land management work?
Management of federal forests includes forest restoration, preservation, and wildfire management activities like prescribed burning and mechanical thinning of overstocked forest stands. All of these practices can contribute to carbon removal, though that is not an explicit objective of federal forest management. The need for these management practices has outstripped the agencies’ capacity to implement them, however, as federal appropriations for forest management have not kept pace with the growing risks posed by wildfire, pests, and forest fragmentation. The Forest Service does receive some additional assistance for restoration from foundation partners like American Forests and the National Forest Foundation, but even these outside funding sources are insufficient to keep pace with the growing backlog of federal forest projects.
A geospatial analysis from The Nature Conservancy estimates that reforesting federal lands could remove 11 million metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere per year over the next decade, with the majority of potential on 7.7 million acres of Forest Service land—significantly higher than the Forest Service’s official backlog of 1.3 million acres in need of reforestation. Additional carbon removal on federal forest lands could come from lengthening harvest cycles on federal timber land, managing forests for greater fire resilience, and restoring the 25% of National Forest land that is currently in poor condition.
The federal government manages grasslands through practices including prescribed burns, post-fire revegetation, livestock fencing, and weed control. BLM can also manage the issuance and renewal of grazing leases to prevent overgrazing and soil erosion. BLM’s capacity to manage grazing for optimal rangeland health is limited, however, by the agency’s backlog of over 7,000 grazing permit renewals. That backlog has prompted Congress to allow grazing permits to renew automatically.
Improving grazing management on federal grasslands can increase the land’s carbon removal capacity while enhancing soil health—particularly on the 21% of BLM grazing allotments that are not meeting or making progress toward the agency’s own land health standards. Other grassland practices like fire management and invasive species control can also enhance carbon removal in vegetation. The carbon removal potential on federal grasslands is highly uncertain, but Duke University researchers estimated that nearly 17 million metric tons of CO2 per year could be sequestered on these lands.
Key design considerations
Should carbon removal be considered the core objective of federal land management policy, or pursued as a co-benefit? Would federal land managers more effectively enhance carbon removal if carbon management were a congressionally-mandated priority, or should it be up to agency discretion?
How should funds be allocated among various land management programs to facilitate carbon removal? Should new programs be created to target carbon removal practices, or are existing programs suitable for that purpose? Is congressional action needed to shield program funds from being diverted away from carbon removal to other agency needs?
How could federal land management programs attract outside finance, for example through public-private partnerships, to achieve carbon removal goals? Could the federal government leverage co-benefits of land management projects, like improved water quality or reduced fire risk, to attract co-investment?
U.S. experience with federal land management
The Forest Service was established in 1905 to protect and manage the National Forest System for water flows and timber production, though these objectives were later expanded to include recreation, livestock grazing, wildlife habitat, and wilderness preservation. Funding for federal forest restoration originated with the Knutson-Vandenberg Act of 1930, which directed a portion of timber revenues into a trust fund for reforestation and hazardous fuels reduction. The size of this trust fund has shrunk significantly in recent decades, however, as timber volumes from National Forest land and timber prices have both declined. The source of reforestation funding has since shifted to the Reforestation Trust Fund (RTF), created in 1980, which provides up to $30 million annually for reforestation and forest management on National Forest land. This funding level has not changed since the RTF was established, even as the Forest Service’s reforestation backlog continues to grow.
Both the Reforestation Act of 2019 and the Trillion Trees Act of 2020 have proposed doubling the RTF budget to $60 million, which would enable the Forest Service to reforest over 1 million additional acres within 10 years —about 10% of the need identified by The Nature Conservancy. Federal funding for reforestation is now protected by the FY2018 Omnibus Spending Package, which beginning in 2020 shields the Forest Service’s non-fire program funding from being diverted to fire suppression needs. Firefighting costs had previously grown to exceed 50% of the agency’s budget, forcing the agency to reallocate funding intended for forest management and restoration.
BLM was established in its current form in 1946 primarily to oversee grazing on federal lands. Its responsibilities were expanded in 1976 to include recreation, energy and mineral production, watershed stewardship, wildlife habitat, and grassland conservation. BLM administers nearly 18,000 grazing permits, but the amount of grazing it allows has fallen by half since the 1950’s as the agency’s focus has shifted more toward conservation and recreation. Shrinking numbers of permits also means BLM has less funding for land management, however, since 50% of lease and permit fees goes to the Range Betterment Fund for rangeland improvement projects.
Current laws prohibit BLM from issuing leases for non-grazing uses like conservation, although non-grazing leases have produced successful conservation and restoration outcomes on state-owned range lands. BLM also does not set ecological standards for leaseholders to maintain their grazing leases, though scientific research has shown that alternative grazing systems like rotational grazing and adaptive multi-paddock grazing can enhance carbon removal in grassland soils. A 2020 BLM rulemaking to scope regulatory changes that would allow for “outcome-based grazing” on federal lands, allowing permit holders more flexibility in how they graze livestock, was intended to address this gap but may instead have the effect of weakening existing rangeland protections, according to critics.
- Center for American Progress, “Restoring Our Investment in America’s Forests,” 2017, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/reports/2017/10/17/440816/restoring-investment-americas-forests/
- Congressional Research Service, “Federal Land Ownership: Overview and Data,” 2020, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42346.pdf
- Congressional Research Service, “Grazing Fees: Overview and Issues,” 2019, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RS21232.pdf
- Duke University, “The Role of Public Lands in a Low-Carbon Economy,” 2010, https://nicholasinstitute.duke.edu/sites/default/files/publications/the-role-of-public-lands-in-a-low-carbon-economy-paper.pdf
- Forest Service, “Terrestrial Condition Assessment for National Forests of the USDA Forest Service in the Continental US,” 2017, https://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/pubs/journals/pnw_2017_cleland001.pdf
- Forest Service, “Fact Sheet: Forest Service Trust Funds,” 2014, https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprd3794956.pdf
- Harvard Environmental and Energy Law Program, “Public Lands Grazing Rules,” 2017, https://eelp.law.harvard.edu/2017/12/public-lands-grazing-rule/
- Property and Environment Research Center, “Divided Lands: State vs. Federal Management in the West,” 2015, http://www.perc.org/wp-content/uploads/old/PERCreport_DividedLands_Feb6_WorkingPaper.pdf
- Property and Environment Research Center, “Grazing Policy: Resolve rangeland disputes with contracts, not armed conflicts,” 2017, https://www.perc.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/PERC-A-New-Landscape-DOI-Report_Grazing-Policy.pdf