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Federal vs State

Public lands: Federal vs State

There are 640 million acres of public land held as federal land and millions more held as state land. These lands are very important to American citizens. These public lands allow for hunting, fishing, outdoor recreation, and revenue generation. Many of these lands bring revenue from tourism, logging, mineral rights, and other outdoor activities. The debate of who should control these lands is very simple. Public lands should be in federal hands.

The history of public lands dates back to 1781 when New York let the federal government claim the unsettled territory west of the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. The rest of states followed the precedent of New York and allowed the Federal Government claim this wilderness outside of the states.(Public Lands Foundation, 2014, p.4)

All of this unsettled territory was wild and uninhabited.

A quote from the Public Lands Foundation (2014),

During national expansion from 1781 to 1867, the United States acquired all the land stretching westward to the Pacific Ocean through the Louisiana Purchase from France, the Mexican Cession and the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico, and the Alaska Purchase from Russia. The original public domain lands totaled 1.8 billion acres.

After purchasing all of this land America became a place of vast wilderness and opportunity. These public lands were there for everyone to use and benefit from. Most of the original 1.8 billion acres of public land were given to the states, individuals, companies, national forests, national parks, refuges, military land, and Native Americans. The public lands were given to people through the Homestead Act to promote the west, railroads to finance their projects and to the states to fund public schools. Public lands supported growth across the west and helped make America the place it is today.

The federal government has owned most of the public land since the countries creation. It has given the states part of the original land. The argument that has come up can the Federal Government own land in a sovereign state. In the constitution, there is no specific clause that states that the federal government can own land once a state is created and it falls outside of its enumerated powers.(Rob Natelson, 2016) Natelson states, “ Under the Treaty Clause (II-2-2; see also Article VI), the federal government may acquire land outside state boundaries. As long as the area is governed as a territory, the federal government may retain any land it deems best.” Once the territory turns into a state the federal government only has the right to own property if the state agrees to an enclave inside of the state. (Rob Natelson, 2016) No formal enclave has been set up by the states with the federal government to allow them to own lands inside the state. This is where some of the basis for land transfer comes from.

The federal government and the states have maintained public lands separately. The federal government has managed public lands through the National Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service. The states manage their land through Fish and Wildlife agencies or state land boards. There are many conflicts that arise between the state and federal agencies. The conflicts arise between the states and feds because the land is held in the state but the state agencies have no control over the land. Problems arise from unmaintained roads, weed management, forestry work and many more. The feds do have a lot more money to get projects done compared to the states. For example if there was a large wildfire on federal land the National Forest Service has a large enough budget to pay for the fire fighting. If this land was state land a state agency could easily spend its entire budget on one fire. This could push the state agency’s into finding different ways to pay for the public lands.

States own a lot of public land but not near as much as the federal government. States have many different rules and regulations and fees for public land. An example is Montana which manages it’s land for the benefit of the school system. The trouble with states taking over the federal land would be the cost of managing them. States would have to charge people to use the lands or find another way to pay for the costs of managing these lands. The only trouble with state management is that there is not enough money in state budgets to manage the land. This miss management would cause states to sell the land, charge an access fee, or not manage them at all.

My position on who should own public lands is easy Public lands should stay in federal hands. I understand the problems with the federal government acting like a controller over much of public lands. There are many problems on the local level that the federal government doesn’t fix or just disregards, but if all of this land was in state hands it could be a lot worse. States don’t have the money to fight multi-million dollar fires or take on large projects such as large land transfers. Also I personally would fear some states selling there public land to pay off the debts that they had created. This is why I feel safer if the land is controlled by the federal government.


B. (2014, December 1). America's Public Lands. P.O. Box 7226 Arlington, VA 222.

F. (2018, September 17). Just How Much Land Does the Federal Government Own - and Why? Retrieved October 30, 2018, from

Natelson, R. (2017, March 16). What Does the Constitution Say About Federal Land Ownership? Retrieved October 31, 2018, from

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