Following the Money in the West

by Leisl Carr Childers

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

Follow the Money: A Spatial History of In-Lieu Programs for Western Federal Lands. Joseph e. Taylor, III, Krista Fryauff, Erik Steiner, et. al., Creators; Spatial History Project at Stanford University Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis, Publishers. http://followthemoney.stanford.edu/. Created 2016; Accessed January 2017.

Follow the Money: A Spatial History of In-Lieu Programs for Western Federal Lands is the first academic project, digital or print, that spatially and comparatively examines the payment programs the federal government created to compensate western states for the withdrawal of those lands from the disposal process. As the creators explain “During the twentieth century Congress passed a series of laws that has guided the management of federal natural resources, and in partial compensation for how the federalization of these lands diminished the tax bases of western states, Congress also adopted formulas that distribute a portion of the natural resource revenues to western states and counties.” The project’s purpose is to show “how political economy has welded together federal, state, and local governments through a set of laws that distribute revenues to sustain the ecological and social services westerners rely on every day” (History). These payments are the financial ligatures between local residents and governments, particularly in rural areas, Congress, and federal lands, and they are funds earmarked predominately for supporting social services, such as schools and roads, that municipal and county taxes levied on private properties typically support. The value of this project to scholars and researchers of public lands is enormous, particularly in its ability to isolate the in-lieu revenue streams and visualize trends across different geographies.

The project’s homepage launches users into an interactive map that features ten different in-lieu payment revenue streams ranging from the earliest, the 1908 Forest Service Revenue Payments, to the most recent, the 2001 Secure Rural Schools and Roads Payment Program. Users can select one of the ten in-lieu payment programs and track the level of payments received by counties throughout the eleven western states across the twentieth century. Users can also select an advanced function that compares each county’s payments in a given year to its historical average for that payment program. Each of the programs is described in a short paragraph to the left of the interactive map and the creators have noted spatial and financial trends that are particular to each of the in-lieu payment distribution policies. Beyond the homepage, the project offers a rich amount of information on the history of these payment programs within the context of public lands management and excellent succinct descriptions of each of the ten in-lieu payment programs. These program overviews are valuable distillations of lengthy legal, economic and political accounts of the history and function of land laws such as the Taylor Grazing Act, the Forest Mineral Leasing Act, the Payment in Lieu of Taxes Act, and other public lands management instruments.

The most astounding aspect of the project, however, is the amount of data the creators collected and the amount of data that still needs collection to complete the mosaic the project has begun. It is frustrating to not have all the data available for all the western counties in all the applicable years, but as the creators note, “There is little transparency about how much public money went to public entities in any fiscal year” (Notes). The reporting mechanisms for the various in-lieu payment programs varied widely and states had no consistent policies for receiving, forwarding, or redistributing the funds. In this way, Follow the Money serves as a portal for understanding the reporting mechanisms and the vast inconsistency in the reports between and within in-lieu payment programs. This state of affairs reveals the lack of priority given these payments, if we assume that good accounting is provided to important programs, and it is no surprise that none of these in-lieu payment programs have been consistently fully funded. The creators handled the existing data deftly and reconciled the nearly impossible problems of inflation and the differences between the delivery and receipt of payments so that the data is comparable and visualizations actually reveal real trends. Graciously, the creators have provided both nominal and adjusted downloadable data sets of all that they collected so that the project’s spatial visualizations can be replicated in other forums.

Follow the Money’s intent to “provide baseline information for scholars and the public” and its goal “to present spatial and temporal data in forms people can use to think about and teach the transfer payments that link federal lands and rural communities” is both timely and necessary (History). If current events are any indication, conversations about public lands, especially their political economy, are only going to increase. The project’s creators know this and have provided useful links to pertinent ongoing public lands conversations such as those featured in the High Country News, Harpers Magazine, The Atlantic, Reuters, resources such as Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project “Conservation in the West Poll” and organizations such as the Center for American Progress, throughout the text. Their interpretation of these payment programs’ effects constitutes an important statement about the greater political economy of public lands.

In-lieu payment programs suggest that the ideal property structure of states and counties consists predominately of private land holdings that provide tax revenue to municipal, county, and state governments and in providing compensation for land withheld from private ownership, the federal government sanctions this assumption, but the funds as they are provided belies the commitment to providing this compensation. The in-lieu payments are also an annual reminder to western states that they do not control the forests, grasslands, and mineral estate within their boundaries as do states east of the Missouri River and are, as a result, actively denied the traditional revenues from those lands and equal financial footing at the national level. The payments themselves are predicated on politics and not the actual market value of the natural resources extracted from public lands and over time, they have decreased, especially in rural counties. Ultimately then, Follow the Money offers one explanation as to why there is so much distance between rural western places and the federal government in Washington, D.C.

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