Stanford University
Follow the Money

In the last few years federal lands have once again become the object of heated contests regarding their management and sovereignty. Triggered by fiscal crises and anti-federal protests, critics portray federal agencies as tyrannical powers and demand that Congress cede the federal domain to western states. Supporters of federal lands counter that most Americans prefer federal sovereignty and that rural western resource users, buoyed by government subsidies, are responsible for degrading the people’s lands. Both sides have valid arguments, and both cherry pick evidence and talk past each other.

Perhaps the most glaring omission in current debates is the political economy of the federal domain. As early as the 1780s, Congress regarded public lands not just as scenery or farms but as a source for generating revenues for the Treasury. That perspective remained central to Congress and to the states during the height of the conservation movement during the Progressive era. One consequence was that the laws Congress passed mandated that federal conservation agencies redistribute a portion of the fees, leases, royalties, and sales they collected from natural resource activities back to states and counties to compensate for lost taxes. Those programs still operate, and Follow the Money illustrates the flow of revenues from ten federal revenue-sharing programs to counties in the public land states.

The maps begin with the 10 percent payments from national forests in the 1907 Department of Agriculture appropriation bill, a ratio that grew to 25 percent in 1909. The other programs include the Oregon & California Railroad revested lands in 1916, Federal Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act of 1937, BLM Materials payments in 1946, Land & Water Conservation Fund Act of 1964, Payments in Lieu of Taxes Act of 1976, and Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000. All return a portion of lease, sale, and royalty revenues, or provide in-lieu payments, to counties and states in which untaxable federal lands exist. These programs are particularly important for the eleven western states, known as the public lands states, because the federal lands comprise forty-seven percent of all the area in those states.

Data for Follow the Money comes from published and archival sources from the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Interior, and state and county auditor reports. The site has recalibrated nominal data to reflect inflation based on 2015 U.S. dollars, and the data has been classified by quantiles to provide color-coded visual cues on the range of payments in each program in comparison to other counties and within each county. The payment data is available in the Data Notes section in nominal and inflation-adjusted form. The project team has tried to create a tool that visualizes the history and geography of the fiscal relationships between federal agencies and western states and counties because of the federal domain. In 2016 we published the site here.

Former Research Assistants:
Krista Fryauff, Alex Sherman

Follow the Money: A Spatial History of In-Lieu Programs for Western Federal Lands
Follow the Money: A Spatial History of In-Lieu Programs for Western Federal Lands

Spatial History