Donald Trump has a lot on his mind, but one massive asset he’s probably not thinking about is federal lands. Trump, who likes a good real estate deal, should sell them off.
I do mean massive. The federal government owns about 640 million acres, or 28 percent of all U.S. land. The West is disproportionately affected: In some states, a majority of land is owned by the feds, including a whopping 85 percent of Nevada. (National parks make up only 12.4 percent of federal lands, so let’s leave those off the table.)
All that territory is worth a lot of money. The Obama administration valued federal onshore lands at $463 billion as of 2011—a lowball figure, and already outdated as new discoveries increase the value of oil, gas and mineral rights. There is also the “land” Washington owns beneath the ocean, an internationally recognized economic zone 200 miles from our shores. According to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, 90 billion barrels of oil and 327 trillion cubic feet of gas have yet to be discovered on the Outer Continental Shelf. Imagine the financial rewards—in the trillions of dollars—from direct leasing payments, job growth and tax revenue on increased economic activity.
Common sense would argue for privatizing these territories. Privately owned land has historically been better conserved and more productive. Selling off federal territories would not just create more access to resources, but also would allow suburbs and rural areas to develop, opening them up to young Americans looking for lower-cost housing with panoramic views. That means jobs for homebuilding, too. There is also room for philanthropists to create a real Noah’s ark, using property rights law to protect species from poachers.
Justice, however, would argue for giving at least some federal lands back to the states, for free. In the 1800s, as the country expanded west, the federal government sold its land to settlers and granted it to states when they joined the union. But it slowed that process at the six states that run north-south from North Dakota to Texas. It’s only fair to the states west of that line that Washington give back some of its imperial power.
How to handle it? Trump could hold an annual auction, or even launch another gold rush, allowing young men and women to stake their claims. Perhaps he could offer naming rights to sweeten the pot for Congress. And once the plan is underway, just think what we could do with the money it would free up. Pay down the national debt. Widen our highway system. Perhaps even buy the good bits of Canada.