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 and 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 were 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 day Washington, Oregon, and most of Idaho.  The U.S. Army was called to defend the lands.  The small population of these territories meant that the U.S. Army needed to draw its officers and soldiers from the established lands east of the Mississippi.  Except for California, there were virtually no non-Indians in most of these lands.  It was the U.S. government and the existing residents in the east who fought, purchased, 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 intact.)  Congress, then, has power over the public domain land and many laws passed by the Congress govern federal agencies responsible for management of the public land.

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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 the 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 Sage 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, and US Fish and Wildlife Service.  (Federal public lands have been have also been reserved for the use of the military and, of course, in Nevada for Nuclear testing.)  Public lands provide a monumental economic and environmental resource.  

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 Public lands are an environmental treasure house for recreation and wildlife and scenic wonder from desert to seacoast, mountain top to prairie, grassland to forest -- a shared heritage for now and the future.Copyright Sierra Club ©
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