Federal Land Management in the States

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Many Western states have a noticeable percentage of federally controlled land intermingled with the state and private land within their borders. Federal ownership means the land is governed by federal rules and regulations. While the federal government makes efforts to ensure activities on federal lands complement adjacent land management, complexities abound. Multiple government processes, combined with the vast number of management acres and diverse user groups, creates a unique form of issues that affect more than just neighboring landowners.  

This is the first in a four-part series that will examine the distinctive policy topics that arise from public lands and how they interconnect with broader policy trends.

A Brief History of Public Lands1
The federal government today owns nearly 30 percent of the land in the United States. The U.S. has acquired nearly 630 million acres through historic events like the Louisiana Purchase or the Mexican-
American War and sales, through policy decisions like the Homestead Act and railroad land grants. The early mindset of the 19th-century land policy was aimed at putting land to productive use and generating
money, both essential for a new country’s growth; however, the progressive era of the 20th century ushered in new thinking. With a new interest in both efficiency and preservation, public land policy shifted
toward scientific management through the establishment of land management agencies.

Agencies that Manage Federal Land
Four federal land management agencies—United States Forest Service, the National Park Service, United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management, known as the BLM, manage public land. Each agency is charged with managing different resources and jurisdiction often overlaps.

U.S. Forest Service2:

  • The Office of Special Agent for forest research was created in 1876 and expanded into the Division of Forestry in 1881.
  • The Forest Reserve Act of 1891 established “forest reserves” with the mission to protect the land, preserve water flow and provide timber. The Department of Interior managed the reserves.
  • The Transfer Act of 1905 transferred management of forest reserves to the Bureau of Forestry within the Department of Agriculture and the agency title was changed to the Forest Service.
  • By the numbers: 
    • The Forest Service manages national forests and grasslands in 44 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. 
    • Half the managed Forest Service acres are east of the Mississippi.
    • The U.S. is home to 155 national forests and 20 grasslands.

National Park Service3

  • The Yellowstone National Park Act of 1872 established the first national park, withdrawing more than 2 million acres for the “benefit and enjoyment of the people.”
  • With a growing number of national parks and national monuments, the Organic Act of 1916 created the National Park Service within  the Department of Interior. The agency was charged with managing the national parks and monuments in a way that preserves the unique resource and provides for enjoyment of the resources by the public.
  • By the numbers:
    • The national park system is comprised of 401 sites located across every state.
    • Largest park site: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska—13.2 million acres.
    • Smallest park site: Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Pennsylvania—.02 acres.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service4

  • In 1940, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was consolidated from the Bureau of Fisheries and the Bureau of Biological Survey under the Department of Interior.
  • The agency was charged with the mission to, “conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.”5
  • Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973 to protect species domestically and internationally; the Fish and Wildlife Service became the agency to administer the act.
  • By the numbers:
    • The Fish and Wildlife Service manages marine national monuments totaling 157 million acres.6
    • The agency manages more the 551 National Wildlife Refuges and operates 70 National Fish Hatcheries.

Bureau of Land Management7

  • Congress created the Bureau of Land Management in 1946 through the consolidation of the General Land Office and the Grazing Service with the mission to sustain the health, productivity and diversity of public lands for the enjoyment of the public.
  • BLM’s responsibilities encompass livestock grazing, timber management, mineral development, recreation, wildlife conservation, cultural sites and other activities.
  • By the numbers:
    • BLM managed land is concentrated in 12 states.
    • The agency administers mineral development for all federal lands, totaling nearly 700 million acres of mineral estate.
    • BLM land accounts for 40 percent of national coal production, 11 percent of natural gas production and 5 percent of oil production in the United States.8

Federal Land Ownership9
Each federal land management agency’s mission is different, meaning the type and location of land owned by the agencies varies across the United States. The land management agencies overlap in
duties, but each agency owns a significant amount of land and is charged as the primary caretaker. The BLM is the largest landowner of the federal agencies; it administers nearly 250 million acres of land. The
Forest Service follows with approximately 193 million acres under its primary jurisdiction; the Fish and Wildlife Service administers 89 million acres; and the National Park Service administers nearly 80 million

By the Numbers:10

  • Nevada has the highest percentage of federal land—81.1 percent, or 56.9 million acres. It also has the highest percentage and total acres managed by the BLM—84 percent, or 47.8 million acres. 
  • Connecticut has the smallest amount of land owned by the federal government—0.3 percent or 8,557 acres. The National Park Service manages more than half the federal land in Connecticut. 
  • Only 13.5 percent of New Hampshire is federal land and the Forest Service manages 95 percent of that federal land. That’s the highest percentage of federal land in a state managed by the Forest Service. The agency, however, manages the most acreage in Alaska, where 21.9 million acres is under its control.
  • The National Park Service manages the largest percentage of federal land in District of Columbia; it’s responsible for 82 percent in the district— that’s 6,900 acres. 
  • The National Park Service manages the most acres in Alaska—52.6 million, or 23 percent of total federal lands in the state. 
  • Alaska also has the most federal land acres managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service—76.6 million acres. But the agency manages the highest state percentage of federal lands in Delaware—88 percent or 25,100 acres.


1 Nelson, Robert. (2012) “Our Languishing Public Lands.”
2 “About Us –Meet the Forest Service.” U.S. Forest Service.
3 “National Park Service Overview.” U.S. National Park Service.
4 “About the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
5 Ibid.
6 Gorte, Vincent, Hanson and Rosenblum. “Federal Land Ownership: Overview and Data,” Congressional Research Service, February 8, 2012.
7 "Bureau Highlights.” Bureau of Land Management.
8 "Bureau of Land Management Brochure.” Bureau of Land Management.
9 Gorte, Vincent, Hanson and Rosenblum. “Federal Land Ownership: Overview and Data,” Congressional Research Service, Feb. 8, 2012.
10 Ibid.


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Federal Land Management in the States384.34 KB