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Federal Government Owns Almost Half of Western US


The federal government owns 48 percent of the land in the U.S. state of Wyoming. (Bureau of Land Management via Flickr)

The federal government owns 48 percent of the land in the U.S. state of Wyoming. (Bureau of Land Management via Flickr)


The United States government owns nearly a third of the nation’s land, including nearly half of Western states.

In the rest of the country, the federal government owns just 4 percent of the land. For most Americans, federally-owned -- or public -- land is not a major issue.

But for people who live in the West, federal or public land ownership can be an issue.

The federal government owns almost 47 percent in the Western states of California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. In Nevada, the U.S. government owns 85 percent of the land.

Farmers and ranchers who depend on land for their livelihood have clashed with government officials about how to use the land.

Having land helped to create a strong federal government. But by the mid-1800s, the government was selling land in the West to encourage people to move there.

The Congressional Research Service is an agency that gives information to the U.S. Congress. It says the federal government gave away or sold about 522 million hectares of federal land between 1781 and 2013.

Few people live on or near federal land in the West. Much of the land is national forests, places for wildlife to live without being hunted, parks used to protect and grow plants and animals, and recreation areas.

Much of the land is used for fishing, grazing, hunting and logging.

The federal government still buys land. But since 1990, federal or public lands have decreased by more than 3 percent, or 9.5 million hectares.

Some state lawmakers in the West want the federal government to release more land. They have written bills, or legislation, that call on their state to take control of federal lands.

But fishermen and hunters who use the lands worry that if the state takes control, the land will be sold to private owners. They may then be unable to use the land.

Many people have different goals and plans for the land. It will continue to be an issue for citizens, industry and politicians.

I’m Jonathan Evans.

Dora Mekouar reported on this story for VOANews.com. Kathleen Struck edited this report for VOA Learning English

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Words in This Story

encourage – v. to make (someone) more likely to do something

park – n. a large area of public land kept in its natural state to protect plants and animals

recreation – n. something people do to relax or have fun; activities done for enjoyment

graze – v. to eat grass or other plants that are growing in a field or pasture

log – v. to cut down trees in an area for wood

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