Public land dates back to 1781 when New York surrendered its unsettled territory westward to the Mississippi. By 1802, the rest of the colonies had done the same. From 1781 to 1867, the US Government acquired land all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Today, almost 40% of the US landmass is public land, managed by federal and local governments and supported by taxpayers.
Public land refers to government-owned and managed land. It serves various purposes and is overseen by different entities. The National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and United States Forest Service are some of the agencies that manage public land. State and federal public land is often available for recreational use, including state parks, national parks, forests, wildlife refugees, monuments, memorials, historic sites, and more.
What are the benefits of public land?
Public lands confer a multitude of benefits to society, the environment, and the economy. They provide accessible spaces for recreational activities like hiking, fishing, camping, and wildlife spotting, thereby fostering physical health and wellness. Public lands also serve critical environmental functions such as preserving biodiversity, contributing to climate resilience by absorbing carbon dioxide, and safeguarding watersheds that supply drinking water to millions. Public landowners can also lease their land for renewable energy resources, contributing to renewable energy goals and the reduction of greenhouse gases. Finally, they play a significant role in local economies, drawing tourists, businesses, retirees, and outdoor recreation seekers.
Top 5 states with the most public land
The federal government is the largest landowner in Alaska, owning approximately 65% of the total area. Alaska is the largest state in the United States in terms of land area and the least densely populated. Alaska boasts a vast expanse of untouched and unaltered natural beauty. From federal lands like Glacier Bay National Park and Denali National Park to state parks such as Chugach and Kachemak Bay, this state is home to breathtaking landscapes. With over half of the nation's park lands and the largest national forest in the U.S., Alaska is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts.
59.7 million acres, over 85%, are government-owned in Nevada. Nevada is home to the largest special recreation permit, and it is known for its vast deserts and iconic attractions like Area 51 and Las Vegas. It boasts unique national and state-owned land, including stunning parks like Lake Tahoe and Valley of Fire. Federally owned territories like Death Valley and Great Basin National Parks offer breathtaking landscapes.
In some rural counties, the federal government controls more than 90% of the land. As a result, federal laws, regulations, and policies play a very important role in the management of vast areas of the State’s natural resources and significantly influence local public policy.
48 million acres of land in California (46%) are government owned. The state totals over 104 million acres. As the most populous state in the nation, California offers a range of attractions. From the iconic Disneyland and Golden Gate Bridge to the stunning natural beauty of Yosemite and Channel Islands National Parks, there is something for everyone. With diverse landscapes and federally protected lands, California is a must-visit destination for nature lovers.
Over 38 million acres, approximately 71%, are government owned in Utah. Utah's many industries, such as recreation, tourism, oil and gas, renewable energy, agriculture, mining, and timber, are crucial to the state. They rely on access to public lands, which also serve law enforcement and emergency medical services in protecting residents and visitors. Utah is home to the Great Salt Lake, the largest saltwater lake in the western hemisphere, and Pando, a 107-acre forest of Aspen trees that all share the same root system. Utah land offers incredible landscapes as well as a variety of recreational activities. A few of the popular state parks include Dead Horse Point, Snow Canyon, and Goblin Valley State Parks.
37.1 million acres of land in Arizona, over 51%, are government owned. Arizona features a variety of landscapes that include remote mountains, large lakes, refreshing forests, desert highlands, and red canyons. Public land in Arizona provides a protected habitat for various animal species, including Mexican wolves and bighorn sheep. It is home to popular destinations such as the Grand Canyon National Park, which attracted millions of visitors in 2019. Other notable sites include the Petrified Forest, Saguaro National Parks, Oregon Pipe Cactus, Navajo, and Sunset Crater National Monuments, as well as Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. State-owned land, like Catalina, Slide Rock, Red Rock, and Kartchner Caverns State Parks, are also frequently visited.
Who manages public land?
Here’s a breakdown of the top agencies and the amount of land they own as of 2023:
Bureau of Land Management - 245 million acres
United States Forest Service - 193 million acres
Fish and Wildlife Service - 95 million acres
National Park Service - 85 million acres
Bureau of Indian Affairs - 56 million acres
Department of Defense - 25 million acres
American citizens trust state and federal agencies to regulate and protect these lands. While the government's large land ownership is controversial, the objectives are clear: preserve nature and wildlife, educate people on conservation, enable global enjoyment, and conduct vital research for future improvement.
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