Uncle Sam is the largest landowner in the U.S.

John Newton and Ryan Yates
The federal government owns or administers programs on nearly one-third of the country’s land -- making it the largest landowner in the U.S. by a very wide margin.

A 2017 Congressional Research Service report indicated that in 2015 the federal government owned approximately 640 million acres in the United States. Given that there are approximately 2.3 billion acres of land in the U.S., the federal government owns or administers programs on nearly one-third of the country’s land -- making it the largest landowner in the U.S. by a very wide margin.

Federal Land Ownership

Federal lands are owned or managed primarily by the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and the Department of Defense. BLM is the largest landowner, with 248 million acres of public land and 700 million acres of subsurface mineral estates. The next largest landowner is the FS with 193 million acres, followed by the FWS, which owns 89 million acres of land and 473 million acres of territories and marine areas., The NPS owns 80 million acres, while the DOD owns 11 million acres.

These lands are managed for a variety of uses determined by federal land management statutes. National forests are administered under the National Forest Management Act., The BLM lands fall under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. Both statutes borrow from the Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act in their emphasis on striking a balance in land use planning among the competing values of recreation, grazing, timber, watershed protection, wildlife and fish, and conservation.

The National Park Service manages national park lands to preserve natural and cultural resource values for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of this and future generations. Figure 1 highlights the share of land ownership by federal agency. 

Share of federal land ownership by agency in 2015.

Most of the lands under federal ownership are in the 11 Western states in the continental U.S. and Alaska. The federal government owns 224 million acres in Alaska, 56 million acres in Nevada and 46 million acres in California. Including Alaska, the top 10 states in terms of acres under federal ownership represent 86 percent of all federal lands. Figure 2 highlights total acres under federal ownership in 2015.   

Land area administered by federal government 2015 in thousand acres.

Share of lands under federal ownership

Given the amount of federal land ownership concentrated in the West, it follows then that the federal land ownership as a percentage of a state’s total land area is also highest in the West. Nearly 80 percent of the state of Nevada is managed by the federal government, followed by 63 percent in Utah, 62 percent in Idaho, 61 percent in Alaska and 53 percent in Oregon.

In total, there are 14 states in which the federal government owns or administers programs on more than 20 percent of a state’s land area. In many of these areas farmers and ranchers partner with federal agencies to graze livestock on BLM and Forest Service rangelands. Figure 3 highlights the share of a state’s land area administered by the federal government. 

Share of land area administered by federal government.

As evidenced in figure 3, in Eastern and Midwestern states where federal land disposal into private ownership first occurred, the share of a state’s land area is much smaller. For example, in key corn- and soybean-producing states such as Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Kansas, the federal government owns less than 2 percent of a state’s land area. In Western corn belt states the federal government owns less than 6 percent of the state’s land area. In New York, Rhode Island and Connecticut the federal government owns no more than one half of a percent of a state’s land area.

Challenges and solutions

The federal government owns or administers programs on nearly 2 billion acres of federal lands, subsurface mineral estates or marine areas. Given that a majority of the surface areas are concentrated in Western states, federal land issues present unique challenges to Western farmers and ranchers. The amount of land under federal ownership, the costs of maintaining these lands, the conditions of the lands, the management of wildlife on federal lands, and border security on these lands are all issues that impact farmers and ranchers.

Solutions being considered by policymakers to improve federal land management include:

  • Examining ownership patterns in the West and identifying alternate ownership and/or management systems to increase productivity, lower costs and reduce bureaucratic red tape in permitted activities.
  • Streamlining permitting and environmental compliance to increase management efficiency and lower costs to taxpayers.
  • Prioritizing livestock grazing and forest management activities to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildland fire and increase habitat for native wildlife, flora and fauna.
  • Examining regional management and organizational hierarchies across land management agencies to provide for better state and local input in the land management planning process.