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Why The Government Owns So Much Land In The West—And How You Can Get A Piece Of It


Uncle Sam owns 47% of all land in the West, but only 4% of land east of the Mississippi. What's with the difference between East and West, and can developers get their hands on any of this land soon?

Earlier in US history, the feds owned nearly all land, either through acquisition or just, well, taking it. Government programs have attempted to transfer much of this land to individuals and states, mostly through homesteading and land grants, the New York Times reports.


This policy worked well in the east, but geography and politics have made it different to duplicate out west. Mountains and difficult-to-reach land made it unattractive to farmers, leaving it on the government's books.

“The whole disposal system sort of hits a speed bump,” University of Colorado history professor Patricia Limerick says.

Despite public concerns of the government owning so much land, Uncle Sam is a decent landlord, charging lower rents for grazing and mining permits compared to private owners.


But what if you do want to get your hands on the land? The US Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management offers an everything-you-need-to-know outline on buying on its website.

But the prices don't come cheap, public policy professor at Boise State University John Freemuth says. "The ranchers couldn’t afford to buy these lands anyway."  

Someone has been buying, however. Over the past 25 years, the government has sold hundreds of thousands of acres for private use. And there could be more on the horizon.

According to one study, moving the property into state control would cost the government $275M a year, making selling for private use a convenient, if not compelling, proposition. [NYT]