Oxbow Bend, Grant Teto,s National Park in the United States

Does the U.S. Government Own Too Much Land?

Owning land can be a good investment, whether you want to build a house or simply like the idea of owning a forest. However, property isn’t as easy to come by as it once was.

Over 150 years have passed since the Homestead Act of 1862. Settlers could claim 160 acres with nothing but a small fee and a promise to live on and improve the land. However, the U.S. government still owns and maintains many acres in its portfolio.

So does the U.S. government own too much land? Let’s take a closer look.

Oxbow Bend, Grant Teto,s National Park in the United States
Grand Teton National Park is approximately 310,000 acres of federally owned land.

How Many Acres of Land Does the U.S. Government Own?

The United States has 2.27 billion acres. The U.S. government owns approximately 620 million acres of land, roughly 28% of the country. The government uses different land management agencies under the Department of the Interior, Department of Defense, and Department of Agriculture to care for it. 

Learn why the government owns so much land in the West.

However, many other sub-agencies carry out management duties, such as the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. The purposes of these properties range from military bases to national parks and agriculture.

Just sayin’, these 5 national parks are one trick ponies.

Why Does the U.S. Government Own So Much Land?

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the U.S. government practically gave away land to encourage settlers to expand westward. The government later tightened its grip out of fear of running out of forests.

Governing bodies assumed that the federal government would be much more capable of managing the land than private interest groups.

The federal government now uses these lands for recreation, timber, and conservation. You’ll find large swaths of land used for little more than grazing animals. Maintaining land ownership helps ensure its longevity and availability for future generations.

A large brown sign denoting Ozark National Forest along the edge of the road.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture manages our national forests.

Where Is the Most Public Land in the U.S. Located? 

The further west you go in the country, the more public land you’ll find. The federal government owns 60.9% of the massive state of Alaska.

On the other hand, the U.S. government doesn’t hold nearly as much land in the East. A state like Connecticut has mostly privately owned lands, with less than 1% government-owned.

There are benefits to government-owned lands, but not everyone agrees with how much it owns in the Western United States.

How Much Land Is Owned by State Governments? 

State governments own approximately 200 million acres across the country. This is about one-third of the amount of land owned by the federal government.

Additionally, state-owned lands are more common in eastern states than in the West. Some states have large amounts of state-owned land, like New Jersey (21%), Florida (16%), and New York (14%). States use these in various ways, most often for parks and other establishments.

A man looks up to the sky as he stands in a large field of grass.
State-owned land is significantly more common in the eastern United States.

Do States Manage Federal Lands?

While the federal government owns the land, states have legal authority over it. You often see this on federally owned lands used for hunting and fishing. Despite the government owning the land, states regulate and oversee hunting and fishing laws.

States have as much authority over the land as Congress gives them. However, federal laws and regulations override state laws according to the Supremacy Clause found in the U.S. Constitution.

So any state laws that conflict with federal ones do not apply on public lands owned by the federal government.

Can You Buy U.S. Government Land?

Occasionally the government will identify some lands as excess or more suitable for private ownership. Most of these lands are in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming. However, smaller portions of land go up for sale in many more states.

Here’s what you need to know if you want to buy land from the Bureau of Land Management.

Each plot of land for sale gets priced individually. It has no set price and gets sold at a fair market value. The government typically uses bidding systems that favor local landowners, direct sales, or competitive public auctions for each sale.

If you want to purchase public land, check with the local government. They can likely provide you with the best resources for buying land in your area.

Is There Land in the U.S. That Nobody Owns?

As we said earlier, the days of unclaimed land in the United States are behind us. While you can purchase unused land from federal and local governments, it will not be as easy as in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Congress repealed the Homestead Act in 1976 and later in 1986 for Alaska. So the days of simply calling dibs on land are a thing of the past.

A land for sale sign posted beside a grassy undeveloped field.
While you can purchase unused land from federal and local governments, the days of unclaimed land in the United States are behind us.

Nowadays, all the land in the country is owned by someone, either the state or federal government, or by private parties. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t still legally buy the land.

If you’ve got a deep enough bank account, you could make your own national park-like environment and have some epic campsites. Just don’t forget to send us an invitation.

In what state would you consider buying a plot of land from the government?

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