Research & Commentary: Federal Ownership of Public Lands

Published March 3, 2014

Nearly half the land of the western United States is owned by the federal government, including 82 percent of Nevada, 68 percent of Alaska, 64 percent of Utah, 63 percent of Idaho, 61 percent of California, 49 percent of Wyoming, and 48 percent of Oregon. By contrast, the federal government owns only about 7 percent of the land in states east of Colorado.

With booming energy production on private lands revitalizing the economies of states such as North Dakota and Texas, many western states have sought to be granted an opportunity to use resources within their borders. In addition to coal, oil, and natural gas potential, federal lands are also a major source of softwood timber, hard metals, and grazing areas.

In March 2012, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed legislation insisting the federal government relinquish more than 20 million acres of land back to the state. Similar legislation has been introduced in several other western states.

Environmentalists support government land ownership because, they argue, these lands contain the most biologically and environmentally valuable ecosystems in the nation and should therefore be preserved. However, most of the acres held by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management are the result of historical accident, not environmental concerns. Cato Institute Vice President Jerry Taylor notes, “Nobody filed any claims for [this land] when the federal government was homesteading land in the West during the 19th century.” During the Progressive Era, Congress created agencies to control western lands under the belief central authorities would dispassionately apply science to determine the best use of natural resources, which they thought free people wouldn’t do.

But as Montana State University economics professor Holly Fretwell writes, “Science cannot determine whether hiking, biking or timber harvest is a higher-valued use. Instead, management decisions—regarding recreation use, commodity production or restoration activities—depend on budget appropriations and special interest battles.” This leads to gross mismanagement of public lands, leaving western communities at risk of wildfires, soil erosion, and other environmental problems that impose steep economic costs.

Without allowing market forces a greater say in how federal lands are used, western states will continue to suffer economic and environmental disadvantages. Privatization may have the strongest intellectual case, but it often has proven politically impossible. A second-best alternative would be to allow people to buy and sell access rights to federal land, as their use and consequent valuing of the land would benefit both people and the environment.

The following documents provide additional information about federal lands.


Ten Principles of Privatization
The seventh installment in The Heartland Institute’s Legislative Principles series addresses state and local privatization, noting, “In recent decades, privatization has gone from a concept viewed as radical and ideologically based to a popular and well-proven public management tool.” 

Local Control Is Better Management for Federal Lands
Writing in February 2014 for the Washington Examiner, Montana State University professor Holly Fretwell points out the current incentive structure for the management of federally owned land in the western United States creates numerous problems for western communities. The lands should be given more local control, she concludes. 

Research & Commentary: Private Management of Public Parks
Heartland Institute Policy Analyst Taylor Smith examines the poor financial shape of many of the nation’s public parks, which have become political footballs during intense budget negotiations. Such fiscal struggle and political meddling calls for privatization as the most intellectually prudent solution, but Smith notes partial privatization of public parks through public-private partnerships can be a more politically feasible, second-best alternative. 

Energy Production on Federal Lands
The American Petroleum Institute covers in a May 2013 blog post a report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration detailing the declining sales of oil and natural gas from federal land production. To pursue an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, the federal government should allow “more leasing, timely permitting, and increased drilling,” the writer concludes. 

Bringing Local Knowledge to Federal Lands
In a February 2014 paper for the R Street Institute, Montana State University professor Holly Fretwell argues the once widely held belief that an elite group of government experts could dispassionately use science to manage public lands better than market forces has come deeply into question. Fretwell argues there is no one-size-fits-all reform for all federally owned lands, and a range from privatization to various devolution schemes may be best applied to varying circumstances. 

Take it to the Limits: Milton Friedman on Libertarianism
Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman explains why “Nobody takes care of someone else’s property as well as someone takes care of their own,” and how that applies to environmental policy, in an interview at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Friedman offers his definitive views regarding the U.S. Department of Interior, stating there’s “no good reason” for the federal government to own any land not occupied by federal buildings. 

Cato Handbook on Policy
The sixth edition of the Cato Handbook on Policy, released by the Cato Institute in 2005, includes myriad proposals for reducing the size and scope of the federal government. Chapter 47 discusses public lands policy and explains how interventionist government policies harm markets, taxpayers, and the environment.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the Environment & Climate News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland Institute Policy Analyst Taylor Smith at [email protected] or 312/377-4000.