The federal government owns 28 percent of all land in the United States. But those lands are concentrated in 11 Western states: in those states, roughly half of the land is under federal ownership.
According to "Federal Land Ownership: Overview and Data," published in 2012 by the Congressional Research Service, Nevada tops the list, with 81 percent federal ownership, followed by Utah, Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, California and Wyoming.
Land acquisition, ownership and management practices have changed significantly in U.S. history. “Initially Indian people owned and occupied North America,” said historian Patricia Limerick, director of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado.
After U.S. independence, the federal government took over new land by treaty (with Indian tribes and European colonial powers), or conquest (of Indian nations, European colonial powers and neighboring countries, such as Mexico).
As states entered the union, they typically ceded ownership of land not already privately owned to the federal government, which then disposed of the land by grant or sale—for instance, to homesteaders or railroads.
In the late 19th century, leaders of the Progressive movement, including Teddy Roosevelt, warned that the U.S. was despoiling its remaining wild areas, and could eventually run out of resources extracted from public lands, such as timber.
Government policy shifted to retaining ownership of most remaining land in the West, for preservation and productive resource management.
Citizens and companies would retain the right to use the land—for a fee.
“A grazing right becomes like another form of property,” Limerick said. “You don’t own the land, but you can pass that grazing right along as a piece of property. So at that point, the division between private and public becomes pretty fuzzy.”
The economics of federal land management can be fuzzy as well, said political scientist Daniel McCool, director of environmental and sustainability studies at the University of Utah.
“Grazing rights are still very heavily subsidized,” McCool said. “Ranchers pay a tiny fraction of market value.”
McCool and other critics say current federal land-management policy subsidizes the energy and timber industries as well, by charging below-market rates to exploit resources on public lands.
And McCool said economic studies have shown that shifting from federal to state land ownership in the West would not generate additional revenue to support local government services.
To the contrary, he said, such a change would likely raise costs for local land-users, such as ranchers, because the additional costs of land management would far outstrip new revenue generated for state and local government.
Infographic by Tony Wagner