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Federal Lands Overview

May 31, 2012

The federal government owns roughly 635-640 million acres, 28% of the 2.27 billion acres of land in the United States. Four agencies administer 609 million acres of this land: the Forest Service (USFS) in the Department of Agriculture, and the National Park Service (NPS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), all in the Department of the Interior (DOI). Most of these lands are in the West and Alaska. In addition, the Department of Defense administers 19 million acres in military bases, training ranges, and more. Numerous other agencies administer the remaining federal acreage.

The lands administered by the four land agencies are managed for many purposes, primarily related to preservation, recreation, and development of natural resources. Yet each of these agencies has distinct responsibilities. The BLM manages 248 million acres and is responsible for 700 million acres of subsurface mineral resources. The BLM has a multiple-use, sustained-yield mandate that supports a variety of uses and programs, including energy development, recreation, grazing, wild horses and burros, and conservation. The USFS manages 193 million acres also for multiple uses and sustained yields of various products and services, including timber harvesting, recreation, grazing, watershed protection, and fish and wildlife habitats. Most of the USFS lands are designated national forests. Wildfire protection is increasingly important for both agencies.

The FWS manages 89 million acres of federal land (plus several large marine areas), primarily to conserve and protect animals and plants. The National Wildlife Refuge System includes wildlife refuges, waterfowl production areas, and wildlife coordination units. The NPS manages 80 million acres of federal land in 397 diverse units to conserve lands and resources and make them available for public use. Activities that harvest or remove resources generally are prohibited.

Federal land ownership is concentrated in the West. Specifically, about 65% of Utah is federally owned, as is 47% of the 11 coterminous western states. By contrast, the federal government owns only 4% of lands in the other states. This western concentration has contributed to a higher degree of controversy over 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. Currently, agencies have varying authorities for acquiring and disposing of land, ranging from very restricted to quite broad. As a result of acquisitions and disposals, federal land ownership by the five agencies has declined by more than 18 million acres, from 647 million acres to 629 million acres, since 1990. Much of the decline is attributable to BLM land disposals in Alaska.

So the question is, would you support returning federal lands to the State of Utah if billions of potential dollars generated from oil and gas leases on those lands were directed to Utah’s public education system?

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From → 2012 Interim

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