In a nation that considers limited government one of its most cherished founding principles, nearly one third of all of its land is now owned by the federal government. And one state, Utah has had enough. That state has enacted a bill giving the federal government a deadline of December 2014 to relinquish control of all public lands.
In at least five states – Utah, Alaska, Nevada, Oregon, and Idaho – the federal government owns more than one half of all land. These states, beset with chronic unemployment and tight budgets, are fighting to get their lost land back. A protracted, ugly legal battle appears inevitable.
The movement to regain lost land from the federal government reaches far beyond Utah. The Arizona State Senate passed a bill in February to reclaim its lands as well. Other bills patterned after the ones in Utah and Arizona are expected to be filed next year in Idaho, Colorado, New Mexico, and Montana.
“It’s time we insisted they give us the lands that are rightfully ours,” said state Republican Ken Ivory (Utah). “That land includes a wealth of resources from clean coal or natural gas, and much more.”
Much of this territory was ceded to the federal government close to the end of the Revolutionary War. Congress then surveyed the land and eventually opened it up for settlement. Settlers from the East moved into some of the land but fast tracks in the western territories were considered unusable and remain under federal control.
More recently, the landholdings have become politicized. Environmentalists and preservationists have fought any attempt at development. The 10 states with the highest percentage of federal land ownership are all west of the Mississippi.
The federal government currently owns 620,000,000 acres of land, which is about 30% of all the land in the United States. This means the federal government owns more acreage than the landmasses of Germany, Spain, France, and Italy combined.
Ivory says that federal control was supposed to be merely temporary. “It was a solemn agreement that was supposed to be performed in a timely manner,” he said. But Congress had other ideas. In 1976, it passed a law directing the Bureau of Land Management to hold land “in perpetuity,” rather than systematically disposing of it.
Robert Gordon, a senior adviser for strategic outreach at the Heritage Foundation, says that federal land ownership is growing more controversial during this time of a weakened economy. He says people are “tired of federal bureaucracy and its agencies wasting America’s tax dollars. How can we possibly have a productive economy when the government is keeping all our resources from us? Federal government should not be in the land business. These lands need to be returned to the states.”
Percentage of lands owned by the Federal Government by state:
- Nevada – 83%
- Utah – 67%
- Alaska – 62%
- Idaho – 62%
- Oregon – 53%
- Wyoming – 48%
- California – 48%
- Arizona – 42%
- Colorado – 36%
- New Mexico – 35%
Compare the ownership percentages above with federally owned land in other states and you’ll see why these states are fighting for what is rightfully theirs:
- Connecticut 0.4%
- Rhode Island 0.4%
- Iowa 0.8%
- New York 0.8%
- Maine 1.1%
- Kansas 1.2%
- Nebraska 1.4%
- Alabama 1.6%
- Ohio 1.7%
- Illinois 1.8%