FEDERAL LANDS ARE THE PUBLIC'S LANDS
Where did the Federal Public Lands Come From?
The United States of America began its westward expansion when
President Thomas Jefferson doubled the size of the country with the
Louisiana Purchase from France nearly 200 years ago. (Across
the country the celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of the
Lewis and Clark expedition will be in full swing in 2004/5. Lewis
Clark were commissioned by Jefferson to explore, record, and report on
what they found in this vast region.)
In 1848, the United States, following the Mexican-American war,
purchased the land of what is now the southwestern part of the country
from Mexico and
paid $15 million. Present day Nevada and California
a part of that purchase along with Utah, most of Arizona, and
the western portions of Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico
By 1846 the United States had claimed the Oregon Territory -- modern
Washington, Oregon, and most of Idaho. The U.S.
was called to defend the lands. The small population of these
meant that the U.S. Army needed to draw its officers and soldiers from
established lands east of the Mississippi. Except for California,
were virtually no non-Indians in most of these lands. It was the
government and the existing residents in the east who fought,
and secured these lands for the United States.
President Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase included lands in today's Idaho
, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado.
The Gadsen Purchase for $10 million in 1853 added Federal lands in what
is today southern Arizona. And the lands of the state of Alaska
were purchased in 1867 by the United States from Russia.
These purchases and claims by the people of the United States of
western lands established federal ownership of those lands. Later
as western states were admitted to the Union, State Constitutions
acknowledged the federal role in acquiring the lands with the right and
title to unappropriated public lands remaining with the United
States. (Lands which had already been appropriated by private
citizens or earlier granted from Mexico remained appropriated.
Thus, the continuity of land owership for settlers remained
Congress, then, has power over the public domain land and many
passed by the Congress govern federal agencies responsible for
of the public land.
© Sierra Club
How did Settlement and Expansion Occur on the Federal Public Land
Laws were enacted by the Congress through the 19th and early 20th
centuries to encourage the settlement of the western federal
lands. Millions of
acres of federal public lands were given to railroad companies to
develop transportation routes and communities, to farmers and ranchers
for agriculture, to miners for finding valuable minerals, and loggers
for timber to build cities
still in their infancy. The result was that most of the
agricultual lands were appropriated directly from the Federal
Government for private uses.
Mineral wealth was appropriated for private uses directly from
Federal Government. Forested lands of high productivity were
appropriated directly from the Federal Government for private uses.
Federal Ownership was a key link in providing an orderly way for
property to be acquired from both territories of the U.S. and from the
states once admitted to the union.
How did Nevada differ in the Amount of Lands Acquired from the
Federal Public Lands?
Upon admission states were given two sections of public land in each
township for schools. Nevada, however, did not want those
scattered "desert" lands. Instead Nevada petitioned Congress to
trade those sections for 1 million acres of land anywhere in the state. Congress
ultimately granted Nevada a choice of any 2 million acres of
unappropriated lands. Nevada selected 2 million acres of the best
land (near or with water) and promptly sold all of it to private uses.
How are the Remaining Federal Public Lands Managed and by Whom?
Today, the Federal Public Lands which remain after nearly two centuries
of western expansion are managed by agencies familar to most westerners
US Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management,
US Fish and Wildlife Service. (Federal public lands have been
also been reserved for the use of the military and, of course, in
for Nuclear testing.) Public lands provide a monumental economic
Are the Federal Public Lands Important to American's Today?
Public lands are used in the production of oil, gas, coal, hardrock
minerals, timber, and livestock in addition to being used for roads,
power and gas lines,
and communication facilities just to mention a few. Likewise, the
lands are an environmental treasure house for recreation and wildlife
scenic wonder from desert to seacoast, mountain top to prairie,
grassland to forest -- a shared heritage for now and the future.
© Sierra Club