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.
However, 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.
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.