U.S. National Archives

This Land Is Whose Land? A History Of Federal Land Ownership

The U.S. government owns about 640 million acres of land, mainly in the West.

By Elizabeth Hagedorn | January 7, 2016

The U.S. government owns about 640 million acres of land. That's almost a third of the country's landmass.  

The ownership is concentrated in the West where the government is the majority landowner in states like Nevada, Utah and Idaho.   

"Once they can use these lands as free men, then we will have accomplished what we have come to accomplish," Ammon Bundy said.  

Article Continues Below

The recent standoff over land rights in Oregon is just part of a decadesold feud over federal control of property. (Video via U.S. Forest Service

Early in its history, the government would simply transfer the land it acquired to states and private individuals. 

But as the country expanded farther west, that started to change.

Concerned about depleting natural resources, Congress began hanging on to the lands it still had. 

Theodore Roosevelt made conservation a focus of his presidency — providing protection for over 200 million acres of territory. 

In 1976, Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which said remaining land was national public property. 

Today, four U.S. agencies administer most of that land, which is set aside for things like mining, ranching and conservation. 

The debate over whether these lands should be turned over to state and local governments isn't unique to Oregon. 

But it is somewhat unique to the West. East of the Mississippi, the federal government owns just 4 percent of the land. 

This video includes images from the U.S. National Archives, the U.S. Census BureauChris M Morris / CC BY 2.0 and Ron Reiring / CC BY 2.0.  

Want to see more stories like this?
Like Newsy on Facebook for More U.S. Coverage