The federal government owns roughly 640 million acres,
about 28% of the 2.27 billion acres of land in the United States. Four major federal land management agencies administer 610.1 million acres of this land(as of September 30, 2015). They are the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and National Park Service (NPS) in the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the Forest Service (FS) in the Department of Agriculture.

In addition, the Department of Defense (excluding the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) administers 11.4 million acres in the United States (as of September 30, 2014), consisting of military bases, training ranges, and more. Numerous other agencies administer the remaining federal acreage.

The lands administered by the four major agencies are managed for many purposes, primarily related to preservation, recreation, and development of natural resources. Yet the agencies have distinct responsibilities. The BLM manages 248.3 million acres of public land and administers about 700 million acres of federal subsurface mineral estate throughout the nation.
The BLM has a multiple-use, sustained-yield mandate that supports a variety of activities and programs, as does the FS, which currently manages 192.9 million acres. Most FS lands are designated national forests. Wildfire protection is increasingly important for both agencies.

The FWS manages 89.1million acres of the U.S. total, primarily to conserve and protect animals and plants. The National Wildlife Refuge System includes wildlife refuges, waterfowl production areas, and wildlife coordination units.

In 2015, the NPS managed 79.8 million acres in 408 diverse units to conserve lands and resources and make them available for public use. Activities that harvest or remove resources from NPS lands generally are prohibited.

The amount and percentage of federally owned land in each state varies widely, ranging from 0.3% of land (in Connecticut and Iowa) to 79.6% of land (in Nevada). However, federal land ownership generally is concentrated in the West. Specifically, 61.3% of Alaska is federally owned, as is 46.4% of the 11 coterminous western states. By contrast, the federal government owns 4.2% of lands in the other states. This western concentration has contributed to a higher degree of controversy over federal land ownership and use in that part of the country.

Throughout America’s history, federal land laws have reflected two visions: keeping some lands in federal ownership while disposing of others. From the earliest days, there has been conflict between these two visions.

During the 19th century, many laws encouraged settlement of the West through federal land disposal. Mostly in the 20th century, emphasis shifted to retention of federal lands. Congress has provided varying land acquisition and disposal authorities to the agencies, ranging from restricted (NPS) to broad (BLM). As a result of acquisitions and disposals, from 1990 to 2015, total federal land ownership by the five agencies declined by 25.4 million acres (3.9%), from 646.9 million acres to 621.5 million acres.

Much of the decline is attributable to BLM land disposals in Alaskaand to reductions in DOD land. By contrast, land ownership by the NPS, FWS, and FS increased over the 25-year period. Further, although 15 states had decreases of federal land during this period, the other states had varying increases.

Numerous issues affecting federal land management are before Congress. These issues include the extent of federal ownership and whether to decrease, maintain, or increase the amount of federal holdings; the condition of currently owned federal infrastructure and lands and the priority of their maintenance versus new acquisitions; and the optimal balance between land use and protection, and whether federal lands should be managed primarily to benefit the nation as a whole or to benefit the local cities and states. Another issue is border control on federal lands along the southwestern border, which presents challenges due to the length of the border, remoteness and topography of the lands, and differences in missions of managing agencies.

Download the attached Congressional Research Service report Federal Land Ownership: Overview and Data

Attached Files
R42346.pdf (20 downloads)

John Stewart
Resources Consultant, California Four Wheel Drive Association
Board of Directors, BlueRibbon Coalition