The Romance And Reality Of Federal Lands – Part 2 of 5

In the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, Congress finally admitted in law what was otherwise clear in practice: federal policy is to retain ownership of existing federal lands. This, coupled with new efforts to limit or deny access to resources on federal land, led to the grassroots uprising known as the Sagebrush Rebellion.

Brings back some “fond” (note the parentheses) memories.

I was working on my PhD at Texas Tech when FLPMA was passed in 1976. Being at a State funded institution heavily populated by Marxists, that went right by me without notice. Further, having been born and raised in Texas, I had no idea as to what any of that meant to ranchers in the 11 Western States. 

But then comes the “fond” part. Not long after finishing up at Tech, I found myself on the front lines of the Sagebrush Rebellion as Range Task Force Leader at the University of Arizona.

What a great awakening that was! One of the first, and most important, things that I learned was that, in the Western Public Lands States, range management has absolutely nothing to do with technology. It has everything to do with politics. Finally, my “education” was complete. 

I brought away a fondness and appreciation for the stalwart souls that continue to fight the good fight each and every day in an effort to preserve our culture and heritage. They need and deserve all of our support. — jtl


This is the second in a five-part series about federal lands by Trent England of the Oklahoma Council for Public Affairs –

Legislation adopted in Utah calls on the federal government to transfer certain of these lands to the state. It set a deadline of December 31, 2014.

Before Horace Greeley and Lewis and Clark there was George Washington. As a teenager employed as a surveyor by Virginia’s powerful Fairfax family, Washington spent three years exploring the colony’s western lands. His very first investment, when he was 18 years old, was to purchase 453 acres of this land at this western fringe. While he lived in what is today an eastern state, Washington was a westerner at heart.

Like Washington, many patriots saw America’s future in the West. One of the causes of the American Revolution was Britain’s insistence on stifling westward expansion. Following ratification of the Constitution by the original 13 states, three new states entered the union during the Washington and Adams administrations. Ohio became a state in 1803, the same year Thomas Jefferson’s administration doubled the nation’s land area with the Louisiana Purchase. By 1850, the union consisted of 31 states.


There was a legal presumption as each new state joined that it did so on equal terms with the existing states. Yet for some western states, that equality was delayed and at last denied.

Nearly every state, as a condition of joining the union, turned over “unclaimed public lands” to the federal government. This established a moment of clear ownership of these lands so that they could be sold or given away. This was federal policy and was referred to in state enabling acts—the agreements between Congress and the people of a new state.

There were good reasons for this policy. Land sales generated revenue, which was often directed to pay off federal debts. Putting the land into private hands was also the most likely way to see it put to use, benefitting local communities and generating local and state tax revenues. Finally, the federal government was never intended nor designed to managed great tracts of faraway land.

The U.S. Constitution grants the federal government specific powers and leaves everything else to the states. The Bill of Rights reiterates this fundamental principle in the Tenth Amendment, but it is clear right from the beginning. The first words in Article I limit federal lawmaking to only those “Powers herein granted.” There is no general federal power to own or control land within the states. Otherwise, the penultimate paragraph of Article I, Section 8, which grants Congress power over the District of Columbia and facilities necessary to carry out other enumerated federal powers, would be superfluous.

Yet even in the 19th Century, states struggled with federal feet-dragging. A government report in 1828 lambasted slow federal land sales for depriving both federal and state governments of revenue and preventing “cultivation and improvement” within the growing nation. President Andrew Jackson called on Congress to reduce land prices to speed up sales and to give to the states whatever land could not be sold.

Eventually, this policy was carried out in the first 30 states. (Some later states also had little “unappropriated public lands” left at the time of statehood.) In all, nearly 800 million acres were transferred from federal to private ownership between 1781 and 1940.

Federal policy, however, was already beginning to shift in the latter part of the 19th Century. The share of the U.S. population living in cities grew to nearly 40% in 1900 from just 6% in 1800. Wealthy city dwellers were captivated by the idealized visions of western wilderness offered by movements like romanticism and transcendentalism. The second generation of Hudson River school painters traveled west and returned with vast canvases bearing idealized depictions of places like Yellowstone and California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. For many Easterners, these images came to represent the whole vast region that is the American West.

In 1872, Congress established Yellowstone as the first national park. Interestingly, Michigan’s Mackinac Island was made the second national park in 1875, only to be transferred back to the state twenty years later (it remains a state park today). Congress designated 36 more national parks prior to creating the National Park Service in 1916. Federal officials also began identifying lands with valuable resources and claiming these were better kept under national rather than state control. By the middle of the 20th Century, the pace of federal land sales had slowed to a crawl.

While some Westerners complained, others saw federal land management as a “free” benefit. Some communities coveted the “National Park” label for its tourism appeal. And, at least in the beginning, most federal lands that were useful for grazing, mining, or logging were open to those activities. With some grumbling, the states went along.

In the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, Congress finally admitted in law what was otherwise clear in practice: federal policy is to retain ownership of existing federal lands. This, coupled with new efforts to limit or deny access to resources on federal land, led to the grassroots uprising known as the Sagebrush Rebellion. People in rural communities across the West demanded more local control over federal lands. Yet the direction of federal law and policies did not change.

Today, the federal government owns just 4% of the land outside of Alaska and the 11 western continental states. The federal government owns nearly half—47%—of the land in the 11 western states. In Alaska, the federal government owns 62% of the land.

Many Western communities have been devastated by the combination of federal lands and the policies that restrict their use. Some Western counties depend on federal aid to make up for the property taxes they cannot collect on federal lands. Congress calls this aid “payments in lieu of taxes,” but in the West it is often referred to as “pennies in lieu of trillions.” Meanwhile, federal forest management practices have led to disastrous fires.

Now Utah is demanding Congress finally act to turn over federal resource lands to the state. The details of that effort are available from the American Lands Council as well as the Sutherland Institute’s Center for Self-Government in the West.

– See more at:


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You might be interested in the other two volumes of this three volume set: The Essence of Liberty Volume I: Liberty and History and The Essence of Liberty Volume III: Liberty: A Universal Political Ethic. 


About Land & Livestock Interntional, Inc.

Land and Livestock International, Inc. is a leading agribusiness management firm providing a complete line of services to the range livestock industry. We believe that private property is the foundation of America. Private property and free markets go hand in hand—without property there is no freedom. We also believe that free markets, not government intervention, hold the key to natural resource conservation and environmental preservation. No government bureaucrat can (or will) understand and treat the land with as much respect as its owner. The bureaucrat simply does not have the same motives as does the owner of a capital interest in the property. Our specialty is the working livestock ranch simply because there are so many very good reasons for owning such a property. We provide educational, management and consulting services with a focus on ecologically and financially sustainable land management that will enhance natural processes (water and mineral cycles, energy flow and community dynamics) while enhancing profits and steadily building wealth.
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