Growing federal control over natural resource issues and environmental policy has produced some questionable results. Citizens have been saddled with enormous costs and tangled in bureaucratic regulations. Many Americans think it is time to re-examine the role of the national government and consider returning environmental policy to state and local governments.
Since 1993, the number of regulations proposed or issued by the Environmental Protection Agency has increased 20 percent. The costs of complying with national environmental regulations have risen from $53 billion in 1980 to over $150 billion today. Local governments have been waylaid by unfunded mandates Communities have battled the EPA over disruptive clean-ups, which they felt were unnecessary. Property owners have been forbidden to farm, log or build on their property in order to protect wetlands and endangered species.
Prior to the expansion of national control, states had a rich history of success in solving resource and environmental problems. Before the 1960s, water allocation was guided by state water law. A combination of statutes and common law provided a system of secure water rights and programs to ensure water quality. The diversity in state water policies was a valuable form of experimentation leading to more effective policies. It was not a reason for national usurpation of water policy through the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.
Public land management has also benefited from state policies and administration. A study of state and national forests in Minnesota and Montana shows that the state forests were run far more efficiently and generated revenues to support public schools. The national forests operated at a loss.
One-size-fits-all policies rarely apply equally in a country as large and diverse as ours. Because states are closer to the actual situation, they have a better chance to make appropriate decisions than the national government. And it is easier for citizens to hold local government officials accountable and to monitor local environmental regulations.
It is time to reverse the tendency to solve all environmental problems at the national level. Federalism allows for a larger government role when problems require it, but many natural resource issues can be addressed by local governments and in so doing can reduce costs and respond more appropriately to citizen concerns.
For more information on environmental federalism see "Environmental Federalism: Thinking Smaller," PERC Policy Series PS-8, by PERC Associates Terry L. Anderson and Peter J. Hill.