04/24/2014 07:38 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2014

Federal Guardians

A Nevada rancher disputes Washington's jurisdiction over federally owned lands he uses, and thus, refuses to pay the legally required grazing fees. A number of prominent Republican politicians (Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Nevada governor Brian Sandoval among them) tacitly support the rancher's rejection of public domain by treating him as a folk hero.

This is a far cry from the GOP of old, who along with Democrats in true bipartisan fashion approved congressional funding for federal acquisition of major tracts of public land. It was well understood then, one might add, that most of this land--purchased either in part or entirely for conservation purposes--was to be managed by agencies of the federal government.

What is behind modern day Republicans' rebellion against federal control of public land, a deep seated resentment that led to championing the scofflaw Nevada rancher, Cliven Bundy? It is their ideologically colored conviction that states, local governments, and most of all, the private sector can manage public conservation lands more effectively than the federal government. Indeed, in the GOP states' rights, limited government world view, the feds have no business controlling the fate of public lands in the first place.

Regarding the Republican charge of federal managerial inadequacy, empirical evidence dictates otherwise. It is no coincidence that for many Americans, the outdoor vacation of a lifetime occurs in national parks, wildlife refuges, and seashores. What private resort or state maintained open space can match the experience of a visit to such revered places as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park, or Florida's Everglades?

Undaunted by custodial reality, many modern day Republicans contend that when public land is owned and administered by the federal government, everyone has a nominal stake and consequently no one feels personally responsible for the upkeep. Conversely, state, local, and private interests by sheer virtue of proximity are bound to be more fastidious and effective in managing land at their doorstep.

It is an argument that doesn't fly. Most Americans harbor strong proprietary feelings towards the nation's national parks and other federal lands, even if the places are thousands of miles away and unlikely to ever be visited. Moreover, the federal civil servants charged with overseeing the public lands may not have personal property rights, but they have a well-deserved reputation of answering a higher calling. It is expressed in the widely recognized pride, conscientiousness, and effectiveness they display in their jobs.

While some states and private entities perform well in preserving public undeveloped land, they tend to be more susceptible to pressure from local extractive industries to allow excessive exploitation of the area's natural resources. Proximity is a factor here. State and local government officials' careers can be more dependent than the feds' on local industry's fiscal support and meeting its political demands. As for private sector public land managers, their first priority is showing a profit. That would relegate conservation to a secondary concern where it is supposed to be of equal if not greater importance in relation to commercial activity.