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US Federal Land Ownership

Reforming the USA #2 – Land Ownership

#2 in my series on needed reforms to the USA. (last updated 10/1/2020)

The USA is deeply and unfairly divided by the federal government’s ownership and control over land. In the states east of the Rocky Mountains, the federal government owns and controls less than 5% of the land; in the original 13 states, the federal government owns little more than 1% of the land. But, in the lands north and west of Texas, the federal government owns and controls more than 50% of the total land area. In some states, like Nevada, the federal government owns 80% of the total land area. See an example of the data here.

The map above was created by the American Lands Council. They have been advocating for this change for nearly a decade. They are right.

Even in the most populous state of the country, the state with the most law schools and the richest state in total income – California – the federal government owns about 40% of the state. California is not able to manage its forests because the federal government (in the form of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management) has nearly total control over what can be done on the land and with the land.

Why is California being treated like a retarded child? Are Californians not smart enough to control our state? Why does New York get to control 99.5% of its land vs. Californians who control only 60%? Are New Yorker’s better than Californians? More moral? More capable of managing their state lands? To ask the question is to answer it: No! No, New Yorkers are not better than Californians.

The reasons for the land ownership being so absurdly different between the various states has everything to do with history and nothing to do with reason, or equality, or justice. The reasons for federal land ownership of the western states made some sense 150 years ago but not today.

Today, the western states cannot build new towns, cannot manage or sell or use their forests, cannot control their water reservoirs, cannot build roads, etc. The current system costs billions of dollars in federal spending, prevents economic growth in most of the western states, and helps keep the federal government bloated with uneeded staff. It is beyond reason that we still live in a land use system which dates back to 1850. How much longer is this going to continue?

California couldn’t implement a rational forest management policy even if it wanted to. Nevada cannot build new cities anywhere in the state, because no new locations for cities are possible because the federal government owns so much.

The easy attack on this change is: Oh, you want to sell Yosemite off to private developers. No, I do not. The major National Parks of the USA are wonderful and should be persevered forever. But national parks today occupy less than 2% of of our total land area. Right now the federal government owns 28% of the land area of the USA (640 million acres). Other than the US military bases and federal courthouses, the US should sell off the remaining 25% of the nations land, or transfer them to the states.

My proposed plan
1. No more than 5% of any state can be owned by the federal government.
2. All land in excess of 5% should be (a) transferred to the states, (b) given to the citizens, (c) sold at auction to any legal residents of the USA.
3. I propose a mix of all three.
Every American citizen today (240 million of us) should be given – free of charge – approximately 1 acre of land. The land given should be selected randomly from all the land owned across the nation. People would be free to sell the land or hold onto it.
That leaves about 340 million acres of land. Of the remainder, about 80% should be given to the states, and the the rest (some 50 million acres) should be put up for auction with the proceeds going to pay down the national debt.

Conclusion: the land ownership pattern in the USA is a relic of ancient history. There is no moral justification for treating the different states differently in 2020. The federal government should not own land without a strong justification which applies equally to all states. At the end of the process, the federal government should own and manage only the National Parks, the US Military bases, and the federal buildings & Washington D.C. All the rest of the land should be in private hands or owned by the states for them to use as the state government sees fit.

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