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The West 2000 Page 2

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There has always been a west in America, always and still beyond the last reach of a highway or a house with no neighbors, there has been a west that warms and promises of wilderness and opportunity.

The “West” as our generation has come to know it is perhaps still defined as it was at the end of our nation’s first century in 1876, when the vast majority of the population, with six or more people per square mile, could be counted east of the 98th meridian. Beyond where that imaginary line slices down through the Dakotas west of the Mississippi and out the horn of Texas through the final reaches of the Rio Grande was said then to be The West.

Some say now it doesn’t begin until you cross the great divide of the Rockies. Some say it doesn’t exist at all, except as an expanse of lesser-settled space between the coastal regions. The West is less a locale or a region in America today than it is an idea, an image coming to mind of somewhere still presiding over the natural heritage belonging to us all.
By contrast, the states of New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, Kansas, and Texas all have less than 2 percent federal land.

Allowed uses of these lands held by the federal government vary among the agencies directed to oversee them, but unlike the development of private property in the East from sale and homesteading of the public domain, western lands following the Civil War proved to be too arid and infertile to provide sustenance for a family on a 640-acre homestead.

Offering more land favored more trouble. In a compromise meant to bring more order to westward expansion there were established much larger communal pasture lands on which permits for use would be granted and managed by the federal government. The birth of federal authority over the West was intended as a democratic means of distributing its wealth.

Until 1976, with the passage of the Federal Lands Policy Management Act (FLPMA), it was understood that fees for use of these communal pasture lands would be only intended to cover costs of federal oversight. FLPMA demanded the fees be tied to “fair market value” of the land itself, and at the same time directed that the government not “devolve,” or sell to private ownership any of these lands. In effect, private ownership of lands in the West has been restricted since the 1870s as a means of encouraging cooperative production, and now is all but prohibited on remaining public lands as a means of retaining federal control.

Federal ownership or expansion of authority over additional lands in the West has continued over the last decade at a rate of about one million acres a year. The Clinton administration proposed measures in the last year that would provide $900 million annually for government acquisition of more land from “willing sellers.” Short of congressional approval for that, administrative and executive authority continues to be used in the West to acquire more public land, sometimes in a guise of purchase by a group such as The Nature Conservancy, which then turns the land over to the government, usually at a profit to the “non-profit” sponsor.

From such circumstances, then, it may be easier to perceive the differences of opinion toward federal management between those
who live in the East and those who live in the West. And yet, even more dramatic distinctions have been established in the last 30 years since the passage in 1964 of the National Wilderness Act.


It is a surprisingly difficult figure on which to find general agreement, but the United States is vastly more “publicly” owned than most Americans realize. Even the noted liberal economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, was stunned to discover in the 1970s the extent of government ownership in the United States that he recognized as exceeding, “the combined areas of Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Denmark and Albania. Where socialized ownership of land is concerned,” he wrote, “only the USSR and China can claim company with the United States.” He wrote that prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The extent of federal ownership seems to vary by accounting methods used in different administrations, but it is generally agreed to extend over about one million square miles, nearly a third of the total U.S. land mass, with by far the largest federal holdings in the West. Together with state, county, and Indian trust lands it is estimated that 42 percent of all the land in the United States is owned and controlled by government.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the West where federal authority over lands is divided among four agencies (in rounded figures):

  • The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (Department of Interior) with 268 million acres (an area larger than the original 13 colonies);
  • The U.S. Forest Service (Department of Agriculture) with 191 million acres;
  • The U.S. Park Service (Department of Interior) with 77 million acres;
  • The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (Department of Interior) with 87 million acres.

More than 700 million acres in all, two-thirds of it covering the western states. In several western states, federal ownership amounts to the majority of the state land mass. Nevada is 87 percent federal land, for example. Alaska is more than 65 percent federally owned, and combined with state lands, 95 percent government-owned.


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Git Home!The West 2000 Page 1

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last page update: 04.03.05