Public Lands and Natural Resources in the West

The U.S. government manages nearly 30 percent of the country's total territory. Despite the fact that the energy industry leased more than 45 million acres of onshore federal lands in 2009, a new report shows that the industry is not using 21.6 million acres of land under lease for oil production or exploration. The Obama administration is now considering whether millions of acres of federal land in the West should be protected as wild lands. But some state officials believe cuts in royalties from mineral development and delays in the permitting process for public lands that could result from the new protections could have a significant negative economic impact for their states.

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The U.S. government owns or manages more than 643 million acres of land, nearly 30 percent of the country’s total territory.1


  • The Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Park Service within the U.S. Department of Interior; the Army Corps of Engineers and each of the service branches in the Defense Department; and the U.S. Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture manage federal lands.2
  • Public lands are areas set aside for a variety of purposes. State and federal agencies are entrusted to regulate and protect these lands, some of which are designated as parks, forests or refuges, others as wild rivers, historical areas or critical habitats.3
  • The Western states with the highest percentage of their total land mass that is federally managed are Nevada (83 percent), Alaska and Utah (both 65 percent) and Idaho (63 percent).

The energy industry leased more than 45 million acres of onshore federal lands in the 2009 fiscal year.

  • According to an Interior Department report, the industry is not using 21.6 million onshore acres of federal land under lease for oil production or exploration activities.5
  • President Obama used the Interior Department report to help bolster his argument that the energy industry should use the land it already leases rather than asking for more on which to drill. Some critics have called the report disingenuous and intentionally misleading because it ignores the bureaucratic hurdles that exist to energy development.6

The Obama administration is considering whether millions of acres of federal land in the West should be protected as wild lands.

  • The Wilderness Act of 1964 defined wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” It is “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.” It may “also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic or historical value.”7
  • Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in December 2010 ordered the Bureau of Land Management to regularly inventory its lands, factoring in wild characteristics when making land-use decisions.8 Such a move would require federal agencies to manage the land primarily to preserve wilderness characteristics. That could mean restrictions on oil and gas development.
  • Utah Gov. Gary Herbert told Congress in early 2011 a cut in royalties from mineral development would hinder rural economic development and key funding sources for the state’s public schools.9 One-half of the royalties from mineral development and leasing goes back to the states.10
  • Some state officials believe the Wilderness Act of 1964 allows only Congress to officially designate wilderness areas.11

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter urged Congress this year to “take back its authority” and block the
new policy.12

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead has asked Salazar to rescind his order, saying the Interior  Department should have provided more opportunity for public review and comment on the policy change. Mead also said the order could drag out or halt the permitting process for public lands and negatively impact Wyoming’s economy and communities.13

  • Agriculture groups have suggested that shifting the focus from multiple uses to management for wilderness characteristics could present a threat to activities such as livestock grazing.14
  • Environmental groups say some public lands deserve special management because they offer a “true wilderness experience,” have fragile soils and vegetation, have experienced erosion and could be further damaged by oil and gas development.15


1National Atlas. “Federal Lands and Indian Reservations.” 

2 eHow. “Private Vs. Government Land Ownership.” 

3 Alaska Public Lands Information Centers. “What Are Public Lands?” 

4 Bureau of Land Management. “Mineral and Surface Acres Administered by the Bureau of Land Management, Fiscal Year 2009.” Public Land Statistics. 

5 Department of the Interior. “Oil and Gas Lease Utilization—Onshore and Offshore: Report to the President.” March 2011.

6 O’Donoghue, Amy Joi. “Report: large amount of oil and gas leases stand idle.” March 29, 2011. 

7 U.S. Congress. “The Wilderness Act of 1964.” Public Law 88-577 (16 U.S. C. 1131-1136) 88th Congress, Second Session. September 3, 1964. 

8 Secretary of the Interior. "Order No. 3310: Protecting Wilderness Characteristics on Lands Managed by the Bureau of Land Management." 

 9 Brad Knickerbocker. “Republicans fear ‘war on the West’ in new wild lands protection.” The Christian Science Monitor. March 2, 2011. 

10 Bureau of Land Management. “Oil and Gas Lease Sales.” 

11 Richard Shaw. “Wild lands: protection or federal ‘land grab?’” The (Price, Utah) Sun Advocate. January 18, 2011. 

12 Knickerbocker.

13 Eryn Gable. “BLM considers McCullough Peaks for ‘wild lands’ protection.” Environment and Energy Publishing.

14 “Bureau of Land Management: Secretarial Order may jeopardize livestock grazing.” Tri-State Livestock News. January 22, 2011.  

15 Gable.