Government-Owned Land and Privatization

By Nelson, Robert H. | National Forum, Spring 1990 | Go to article overview

Government-Owned Land and Privatization

Nelson, Robert H., National Forum

It is often remarked that, compared with many other nations, the United States has few governmentowned properties and thus few candidates for outright privatization. Yet, there is one important respect in which this assessment is mistaken; governments own vast acreages of land. The federal government has about 725 million acres, which represent thirty-two percent of the land area of the United States. State and local governments own another 155 million acres, bringing total government land holdings to almost forty percent of United States land. The sale of government-owned land in many cases would stimulate more efficient and socially productive use of this land, as well as generate significant revenues for the government.

Federal land ownership is most widespread in Alaska (eighty-seven percent of the total area of the state) and Nevada (eighty-five percent), followed by Idaho sixtyfour percent), Utah (sixty-four percent), Wyoming fifty percent), and Oregon (forty-nine) percent. Such high levels of federal ownership in the West reflect the major inadequacies and failures of the homestead laws, state land grants, and other nineteenth-century disposal statutes. Even in California with its huge metropolitan populations, the federal government today owns 46.5 million acres or almost half of the land in the state.

The Bureau of Land Management in the United States Department of the Interior manages the largest area of federal land, about 250 million acres. The Forest Service in the Agriculture Department administers about 190 million acres of national forests. Other important federal land agencies are the Fish and Wildlife Service (about 90 million acres, mostly in wildlife refuges), National Park Service (80 million acres), and Defense Department (23 million acres).

Federal lands are in large part rural lands, consisting in many cases of forests, rangelands, mountain peaks, wetlands, rivers, and other natural assets. Traditionally, the most important commercial uses for this land have been timber harvesting, livestock grazing, and mining of various types. Onshore federal lands today supply more than twenty percent of United States coal production and about five percent of United States oil and gas production. National parks have long attracted millions of visitors, and hunters and fishermen have long made heavy use of federal lands. In recent years other recreational uses of ordinary federal lands have also grown rapidly, becoming the highest value use in a number of areas.

The potential for privatizing federal lands varies greatly with the type of use and other circumstance. Wilderness areas, for example, could not be sold without a denial of much of the public purpose for which these areas were created. In contrast, the federal government also owns many isolated parcels of urban land in Palm Springs, Las Vegas, and other western cities. Disposing of these lands makes them available for urban development and does not conflict with any important public objectives. In recent years there have been few sales of urban properties. However, the Bureau of Land Management has embarked on a major exchange program under which public properties in urban areas are transferred to new private owners in exchange for receipt of private lands in rural areas that serve federal recreational purposes.

There are also many federal properties that consist of small parcels of rural land separated from other federal lands and serving no management purpose. There are large remaining federal lands located in old "checkerboard areas-remnants of nineteenth-century land grants to railroads in which the government and the railroad divided ownership of broad areas into alternating square miles. Merely consolidating federal land holdings and retaining only lands that are rationally managed in conjunction with other federal lands would result in the disposal of perhaps twenty to thirty million acres. Such a simple housecleaning operation, addressing the problems of land patterns that are largely accidents of two hundred years of western land history, might well generate government revenues in the range of two billion to five billion dollars. …

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