Measuring the Scope of Federal Land Ownership

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During much of American history, landuse regulation was not a federal issue. The American system was biased against an active federal role in land ownership and long-term management. It focused instead on limiting federal powers to those specifically enumerated in the U.S. Constitution, such as individual rights and protection of private property. Accordingly, newly acquired federal lands were to be dispensed to the public, eventually becoming private lands that would be put to productive use. However, in modern times, these trends have been signficantly reversed. Federal controls on public and private lands have grown and continue to expand, affecting private property, recreation, and small businesses involved in resource industries—putting many of them out of business. 

After the Louisiana Purchase and acquisition of the western lands of the United States, the federal government owned about 80 percent of the total U.S. territory. Given the constitutional bias for private property, the government eventually transferred 1.1 billion acres to states and private parties under various federal programs. In particular, the Homestead Act of 1862 granted freehold property to anyone who assumed control of 160 acres of government land, which they were to improve by growing crops or at least keeping a home on the property. An individual who worked or lived on such a plot for five years would then gain full ownership. Stewardship of these lands would result from private effort or state-level regulation at the most. 

During the first half of the 20th century, the limited government philosophy gave way to progressivism in many areas, including environmental policy. Progressives ensured that their views were articulated in numerous public policies, shifting the federal focus from divestiture toward acquisition and management. 

At the same time, land management policy moved away from resource use toward conservation and preservation goals, eventually limiting access for ranchers, foresters, recreationists, and those seeking access to energy resources. Such trends continue even though the federal government could facilitate resource use in a manner consistent with environmental goals. As an example, resource extraction can prove beneficial, particularly when it eliminates diseased trees and reduces fire risk.