This Entity Literally Owns Half of the American West

Posted February 1st, 2016 at 10:51 am (UTC-4)

The federal government owns 48 percent of the land in the U.S. state of Wyoming. (Bureau of Land Management via Flickr)

The federal government owns 48 percent of the land in the U.S. state of Wyoming. (Bureau of Land Management via Flickr)

The United States government owns a mammoth amount of land —  640 million acres — which accounts for about 28 percent of all the land mass in the country.

By far, most land owned by the federal government is in the American West. The feds own almost 47 percent of the 11 coterminous Western states, which include California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington State, Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. The U.S. government owns a whopping 85 percent of land in the state of Nevada.

Compare that to the rest of the country, where the federal government owns just 4 percent of the land. For the vast majority of Americans, federally-owned land isn’t much of an issue.

Slide12However, for people in the West, it can be central to their lives. In Oregon, authorities are in the midst of a standoff with some ranchers who want the government to relinquish control over federal cattle grazing lands. Conflict over use and preservation has long been an issue of contention when it comes to federal land.

Historically, acquisition and control of land was critical to creating a strong federal government. However, by the mid 1800s, the government was pushing for the settlement of the West by disposing of federal lands.

Cowboy Dwane Ehmer, of Irrigon, Oregon, a supporter of a small, armed group that occupied a remote refuge in Oregon to protest federal land policies, walks his horse near Burns, Oregon, on Jan. 7, 2016. (AP Photo)

Cowboy Dwane Ehmer, of Irrigon, Oregon, a supporter of a small, armed group that occupied a remote refuge in Oregon to protest federal land policies, walks his horse near Burns, Oregon, on Jan. 7, 2016. (AP Photo)

About 1.29 billion acres of public land was transferred out of federal ownership between 1781 and 2013, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service.

Today, most federally owned property in the west is in remote, unpopulated areas. This protected land contains national forests, wildlife refuges and parks aimed at conserving plants and animals, and recreation areas. Much of the land is also used for fishing, grazing, hunting, logging and other purposes.

And, while the federal government continues to acquire land, the total federal land ownership has dropped by 23.5 million acres, or more than 3 percent, since 1990.

Some western lawmakers want more. They’ve sponsored numerous bills and resolutions aimed at taking control of the federal lands inside their state lines. But fishermen and hunters who use those same lands worry the property will be sold to private owners, putting a valuable public resource forever off-limits to them.

When it comes to the future of federal land, one thing is certain. The land will continue to be a source of controversy among people with competing interests who think they know what’s best for the land currently owned by Uncle Sam.

8 responses to “This Entity Literally Owns Half of the American West”

  1. Eric says:

    You need to learn your history or you will be doomed to repeat it. The BLM was formed to stop another catastrophe that was caused when States and private entities had free rein in the West. The Federal Government sold or gave the land to anyone for homestead before taking much of it back. These people and corporations abused the land and caused the great Dust Bowl that blanketed the entire continent in great dust storms previously only seen on Mars. If corporations and there idiot lackeys like Bundy have their way, the desert will consume all of us. The BLM is not perfect but it is a solution that has worked for nearly a century.

  2. Lem Roberts says:

    I totally agree with Eric. It is only because of the Fed Govt that we have protected wildlife preserves, national forests etc. Turning this land over to the states would be a disaster. As we have seen many times before pvt ownership would destroy our natural wilderness.

  3. David Brinton says:

    Well, if the federal government is best for management of so much land, maybe we should turn over medicaine, banking, and business to them too. Let’s put an end to private enterprise once and for all and just trust the government to take care of all our needs.

  4. Sorms says:

    The dust bowl was created from a drought. Setting aside extremist political beliefs, there wasn’t much the farmers in that situation can do to grow crops in that type of a drought. Planting different crops would have made a minor and maybe not difference in the drought and the amount of dust stirred up by the wind. The BLM can’t prevent droughts (maybe BLM employees believe that it can?). There is something of a conflict involving the probably excessive amount of property owned by the federal govt and the careerism of federal employees.

  5. Joseph Baker says:

    I fail to understand why people assume that state government can’t manage that land just as well as federal government. This is about control and taxes. No one is saying just hand all the land over to private parties, though having some type of homesteading on some lands might stimulate the economy and give our children opportunity that is largely disappearing directly due to the hoarding of lands by the feds that should be controlled locally by state government.

  6. Chris MacNaois says:

    The federal government has messed up a lot of things but at least its keeping private interests from raping 100% of our lands. You can look at how the state of Kentucky managed its land for an example of the awesome job of land management that states are capable of. The coal barons infiltrated every level of government within the state and raped the land (not to mention the mountain people) for all it was worth. If it wasnt for the federal government there would be scarcely an acre in the east that was natural and able to be enjoyed by all Americans. I dont want them controlling personal aspects of my life, but by God they do a helluva lot better than the states and private sector do at land conservation. There are precious few virgin lands (even the ones that are still here are very small) left here in the east and many species have already been extirpated or their range greatly diminished. The only virgin lands are (guess where) on federally protected lands. Its not a perfect system, but its better than anything else so far. Go visit Cheaha wilderness in Alabama. Its beautiful and it was once some of the most barren land in Alabama. Its probably not anything like the virgin forests that once covered America but its closer than it would have been if it hadnt been bought by the federal government.

  7. oneworld says:

    All these yea-sayers rooting for the government to control us have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. This is federally owned land, not state-owned, the f’n federal government took it over! Your left-wing pathetic weak-minded states have allowed the federal government take over your lands and you feel so warm and cozy about it? What???!!! And the western states talk about the south like a disease, the south knows what freedom is. Texas is the largest of the 48 and is one of the lowest in federal land theft, and I don’t see any dust bowl storms and devastation! You Liberals and your ‘let the government control our lives’ mentality. What happened? I mean, the whole hippie-revolution was about the government staying out of your lives, down with the ‘man’ and down with the ‘establishment’ and down with ‘conformity’ and ‘don’t tell us what we can or can’t do’…….now you weirdos are singing the exact opposite tune just because the Republicans later agreed to less government intrusion and less entitlements so that people can run their own lives……………you know…………life…………..liberty………..pursuit of happiness………………..


  8. Eric says:

    Hi Soms,
    I agree with you about the farmers not being able to do anything about the drought or the Dustbowl that was created when their farms dried up and blew away. What our great grandparents realized was that drought is cyclical in the Western States. It has been for tens of thousands of years. We are in a major drought here in Nevada right now, more than 10 years.
    The great Dust Bowl was created by allowing millions of homesteaders free land which they plowed up destroying native grasses that are genetically resistant to these cyclical droughts. That is why we haven’t had another dust bowl since the BLM bought back all the homesteads and allowed nature to heal the land.
    States rights are a hot button issue as the ignorant poster calling us all weirdo’s has pointed out. Our great grandparents created the BLM so that we their descendants can experience the West, much the same way they did.
    State governments are too weak to resist big corporations and there desires to rape the land once again. The BLM works, not great but it gets the job done.

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