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Question #91355 posted on 05/24/2018 2:18 p.m.

Dear 100 Hour Board,

In one episode of Thinking Sideways podcast, it was mentioned that the government owns something like 75% of Utah and Nevada. Does it really own that much? And if so, what's the average amount it owns in other states?

--Mystery is Me--


Dear you,

This Time article lays out ownership for both Nevada and Utah. In Nevada, Federal ownership is at 84.9%, and in Utah, it's at 64.9%. An average isn't terribly helpful here, because the amount of land owned by the federal government varies drastically by state and is much higher in western states than eastern ones. The Wikipedia article on Federal Lands clarifies that it gets as low as .3% of Connecticut and Iowa. 

I think it matters that people get that this is a thing, because federal landownership and land management and land policy have been in the news as of late and having a basic idea of how much land the government owns (a lot) and where (the West) helps in understanding the debates that happen.

Also, to raise a point that may go against II's argument below: leaving aside the debate over whether federal or state management is better/more efficient, there's still an issue here, and that has to do with distribution of land with respect to private individuals vs. the government (whether that be Federal, State, etc.) This table is a bit older, but gives data on state land ownership as well as Federal. Tourism may be a significant economic sector in some states, and some government land ownership and management certainly contributes to that. It's also worth noting, though, that this is essentially a federal-to-state business subsidy in a sense, and also that the boon to tourism presumably comes at the expense of tax revenues from development since states cannot tax the federal government. Further, I think that having over 50% of land owned by either a state or federal government (Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, and Alaska, per that chart) is an excessive restriction on private development, especially given the huge disparity with total government ownership in other states (<10% in Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, Vermont, and West Virginia). So: there may be some things the Federal government is better at than State government, and vice versa. However, that doesn't change the question of whether any government should properly own so much of the land rather than private individuals. Even conceding for the sake of argument that there is actually too little land owned by the government in certain areas (particularly the East and Texas) (I'm not saying I agree with this, mind,) the massive percentages some states have that are restricted from private ownership seem excessive to me.

~Anne, Certainly


Dear --Mysterio--,

As of the March 3, 2017, the Congressional Research Service reports that 79.6% of Nevada and 63.1% of Utah is managed by the Federal government. You can follow this link and check out pages 7-8 of that report to see percentages for the other states.

This is a bit of a pet issue of mine, so buckle in for a tiny lecture.

Yes, the federal government owns a big proportion of some Western states compared to others. HOWEVER, THIS IS NOT UNFAIR AND IN FACT IS A BOON TO UTAH. Advocates for turning federal control over public lands to the states point to those high percentages as proof that western states are being oppressed by the government, but that's not the whole story. You have to consider that most of the states that have a high proportion of federal land benefit in the short and long from that land in the form of tourism revenue and oil and gas leases. Also, these states have a relatively low population and large area so the percent of federal land per person is actually reasonable. These lands bring a ton of value to Utah, particularly in low-population (read: poor) counties, and yet the state gets the benefit of having them managed by the fed at no cost to the state. Plus, these lands represent some of the last true wilderness in the US, which is valuable ecologically as well as financially. For a more visual demonstration, take a look at this map I made that compares federal land percentages and tourism revenues per person.

In conclusion, Rob Bishop and other prominent folks who want to privatize public lands in the west can go eat a butt. Thanks for coming to my TED Talk.

-Inverse Insomniac