Public Lands

public land

public land, in U.S. history, land owned by the federal government but not reserved for any special purpose, e.g., for a park or a military reservation. Public land is also called land in the public domain. Except in Texas, which made retention of its public lands one of the conditions for joining the Union, there are no state public lands. Seven of the original states ceded their western lands to the federal government when they entered the Union. Additional public land was acquired with the Louisiana Purchase (1803), Florida (1819), Oregon (1846), the Mexican Cession (1848), the Gadsden Purchase (1853), and Alaska (1867). Almost as soon as public land was acquired the federal government began to dispose of it through grants to states, railroad companies, settlers (see Homestead Act, 1862), colleges (see land-grant colleges and universities), and cash sales. It was charged that large companies frequently acquired extensive holdings by dishonest means, and many of the new owners obtained considerable revenue by selling the land. A reaction to this easy policy set in toward the end of the 19th cent., and steps were taken to ensure the conservation of natural resources by withdrawing public lands from sale. Thereafter the government leased such land for grazing, lumbering, mining, the harnessing of water power, and other purposes, while maintaining regulatory control. By the 1970s there was considerable controversy over the need to make the best use of the public land's valuable resources while still preserving the land for future use and expanded recreational activities. Most of the nation's remaining public land is in the western part of the country, about half of it in Alaska.

See E. L. Peffer, The Closing of the Public Domain (1951, repr. 1972); W. C. Calef, Private Grazing and Public Lands (1960); V. Carstensen, ed., The Public Lands (1962); P. Gates, History of Public Land Law Development (1968); M. J. Rohrbough, The Land Office Business (1968).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Federal Lands Policy
Phillip O. Foss.
Greenwood Press, 1987
The Federal Lands Revisited
Marion Clawson.
Resources for the Future, 1983
Rethinking the Federal Lands
Sterling Brubaker.
Resources for the Future, 1984
Integrated Public Lands Management: Principles and Applications to National Forests, Parks, Wildlife Refuges, and Blm Lands
John B. Loomis.
Columbia University Press, 2002 (2nd edition)
Privatizing Public Lands
Scott A. Lehmann.
Oxford University Press, 1995
The Leasing of Federal Lands for Fossil Fuels Production
Stephen L. McDonald.
Resources for the Future, 1979
The Piracy of America: Profiteering in the Public Domain
Judith Scherff.
Clarity Press, 1999
Western Public Lands and Environmental Politics
Charles Davis.
Westview Press, 1997
Public Lands Politics: Interest Group Influence on the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management
Paul J. Culhane.
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981
American Singularity: The 1787 Northwest Ordinance, the 1862 Homestead and Morrill Acts, and the 1944 G.I. Bill
Harold M. Hyman.
University of Georgia Press, 1986
Our Landed Heritage: The Public Domain, 1776-1936
Roy M. Robbins.
Princeton University Press, 1942
The Lure of the Land: A Social History of the Public Lands from the Articles of Confederation to the New Deal
Everett Dick.
University of Nebraska Press, 1970
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