Federal Land Policy has Long Been Contentious, Particularly in the West

Much has been made in the news recently of the Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who has long refused to pay his federal grazing fees. When Bureau of Land Management employees began a roundup of the free-ranging cattle, they were surrounded by armed Bundy supporters described as “militia.” The cattle were set free.

There were many different views of the conflict, depending on where one stood on the  political spectrum. Then Bundy’s pontifications moved from his views of federal land policy to racially-charged assertions about African American history. One result, Bundy vs. BLM may quickly fade.

But the point remains that federal land ownership and policy have long been contentious, mainly in the West because the government holds such vast, vast tracts here. According to the Congressional Research Service, the government own 62 percent of Alaska, and 47 percent of the 11 coterminous Western states. That’s a lot of real estate.

By comparison, the U.S. owns only 4 percent of land in the remaining 38 states.

As the CRS report notes, “from the earliest days, there has been conflict” over competing visions of American land laws. “During the 19th century, many laws encouraged settlement of the West through federal land disposal.” Then in the 20th century policies shifted back toward retention of federal lands.

As for the BLM, the agency is responsible for 248 million acres, as well as 700 million acres of of subsurface mineral resources. It 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,” according to the report.

Those mandates are set into law by Congress, whose members, of course, are elected by the citizenry, the majority of which live outside the West.

All totaled, the federal governments owns about 28 percent of the 2.27 billion acres of land in the United States. Of the approximately 637 million federally-owned acres, 609 million acres are administered by just four agencies. In addition to the BLM, there’s the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service, both also in the Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture.

As the 2012 CRS report noted, numerous controversial issues affecting federal land management are before Congress, which has long been and continues to be the case.



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