The federal government owns around 640 million acres of land, almost 30% of the 2.27 billion acres of land in the United States. Around 52 percent of federally owned acres are in 12 Western states, where in contrast, the federal government owns 4 percent of land in the other 38 states. Four federal agencies—the U.S. National Park Service (NPS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) within the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, oversee roughly 95 percent, or 608 to 610 million acres, of federal land. A look at the following map which shows federal land as a percentage of the total state land clearly shows the divide between West and East.
When it comes to which state has the most federal land Alaska comes in first with 223.8 million acres, while Nevada has the greatest percentage of federal land within a state at 84.9 percent. Both because of its enormous total size and its huge percentage of federal lands, Alaska alone represents almost half the government-owned area in the 10 most ‘federalized’ states combined. The only two western states falling out of the top 10 are Montana with 29.9% and Washington state at 30.3%. So why does the government own so much land and who administers who is in charge? According to the Congressional Research Service, a total area of just under 610 million acres, more than twice the size of Namibia, is administered by no more than 4 federal government agencies:
The United States Forest Service (USFS), which oversees timber harvesting, recreation, wildlife habitat protection and other sustainable uses on a total of 193 million acres, about the size of Turkey, mainly designated as National Forests.
The National Park Service (NPS) conserves lands and resources on 80 million acres, about the size of Norway, in order to preserve them for the public. Any harvesting or resource removal is generally prohibited.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), managing 248 million acres, an area about the size of Egypt, has a multiple-use sustained-yield mandate, supporting energy development, recreation, grazing, conservation, and other uses.
Lastly the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) manages 89 million acres, an area slightly bigger than Germany, to conserve and protect animal and plant species.
As the United States expanded across the continent, it did so by purchasing or taking the land that became new states. Much of the land was taken from Native Americans. Over time, it transferred land to state governments and individuals, largely through homesteading and land grants, which allowed farmers to procure parcels of land for agricultural use. The government also tended to allow free use of unclaimed lands by ranchers and others, though there were skirmishes over the years when settlers tried to fence in public land or claimed land in Indian territories. This strategy worked well in the Midwest, where very little land remains in federal hands. East of the Mississippi, for example, the federal government owns only 4 percent of land. Yet in the 11 states in the West, including New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, and not counting Alaska, a combination of geography and politics slowed things down. “The whole disposal system sort of hits a speed bump,” said Patricia Limerick, a history professor and director of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado. The many mountainous, arid and difficult-to-reach tracts of land in the West simply weren’t attractive to farmers. Settlers claimed the few valleys where farming was feasible and built towns. The only thing most of the remaining land was good for was grazing, but cattle ranchers and sheep herders needed large tracts of land to feed their livestock, not the smaller parcels they could claim through homestead policies. More recently, federal law eliminated homesteading and set up more formal systems for management of the remaining land. So here we sit with the government owning 640 million acers almost 30% of the total land base. So what does it cost for these four federal agencies, , tasked with managing most of this land? Together the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and National Park Service have combined annual budgets of around $12 billion annually. In the early 19th century, the Supreme Court ruled that state and local governments did not have the authority to tax federal lands within their jurisdiction. So because the government owns massive amounts of land many states were experiencing huge losses in property taxes. Aa a result many people within these communities began to associate federal land ownership within their local jurisdiction with lost tax revenue. So to compensate local governments for the loss in property tax revenue, Congress has passed legislation throughout the years to provide these communities with payments in lieu of taxes. For example, in 1908, Congress passed legislation which required the Forest Service to share 25% of its revenues with local governments. Many still questioned whether federal payments to local governments were adequate compensation for lost property tax revenue. To address these concerns, Congress passed the Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) Act in 1976. The PILT program, administered by the BLM, was intended to act as an “umbrella” program by which federal payments to local governments would become more stabilized and tax equivalent. Rather than rescind existing revenue-sharing programs, PILT was meant to act as supplementary. This in turn resulted in more costs and less revenue for Federal land. There is also the question of how well does a government manage compared to when things are put into private hands. Historically governments including the US have been poor at best in managing, just look at how they have handled the budget, which now stands at almost 20 trillion dollars in debt. And why does the government own almost a third of the country? So as the United States federal debt approached 20 trillion dollars, that’s over $160,000 per tax payer, one has to ask is it time to sell some of its assets? Assets that cost tax payers billions of dollars to manage as well as billions in lost tax revenue. What if some of this land was sold to citizens and the money used to pay down the federal debt. Not only would that generate cash in the short term but it would generate consistent tax revenue year after year without costing anything to maintain which would cut billions from the federal budget. Now before you freak out I’m not talking about selling Yellowstone or other National monuments. I’m just suggesting that it might be time to get serious about the budget.