Lessons from a Busted Trust

It turns out that government-private land management is a lot like being a little pregnant.

That’s the conclusion reached by Brian Yablonski and Melinda Harm Benson, who write about the Valles Caldera National Preserve in the Summer 2017 edition of PERC Reports, published by the invaluable Property and Environment Research Center.

Valles Caldera’s management shifted from a federally chartered nonprofit trust to the National Park Service on October 1, 2015. (Errors of Enchantment was on the scene for one of the “listening sessions” held in advance of the transfer.) But prior to the switch, the trust’s administration was seen as “one of the largest and most ambitious public land management experiments in the United States” — a “test case for a more financially driven, market-based approach.”

The authors lament that the experiment failed. Why?

* In 2000, the Valles Caldera Preservation Act created the Valles Caldera Trust, “a new type of federal land management entity based on a fiduciary trust model.” But while “the trust model was intended to grant managers more of the flexibilities of a private-sector operator, as a government corporation the trust still faced many of the same compliance duties and statutory requirements that apply to federally owned lands.” No repeal was made of federal red tape, including the rules implemented under the National Environmental Policy Act, Government Performance and Results Act, and Government Corporation Control Act.

* The trust was not allowed “to engage in contracts beyond the life of the trust experiment.” An opportunity to buy the land its administrative offices were located on was lost, it couldn’t borrow money, and possible concessionaires “or other long-term business partners” were turned off.

* Management freedom was undermined when “the Forest Service changed its policy on procurement procedures toward the end of the experiment.” In October 2012, the USFS “declared that all trust procurements — contracts, purchase orders, agreements, grants, and small credit card purchases — had to follow Forest Service procurement regulations and policies … . As a result, all purchases had to be documented on forms used by the Forest Service and approved by the agency’s procurement office in Albuquerque. Procurements that used to take 24 to 48 hours took weeks to months to be processed, and contracts that were once processed in several weeks now took up to a year to complete.”

Did the Valles Caldera Trust ever have a chance? Probably not, given how hamstrung it was by Washington. Give the PERC Reports article a read. It’s a cautionary tale, and a reminder that there should be a clear line between private and “public” land ownership.

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