Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Public Lands in the United States

The United States of America encompasses a very large amount of land, both what is generally considered dry land and even more covered by salt water. Approximately 40% of the dry land (31% federal and 9% states) and essentially 100% of the undersea lands are owned mostly by the government of the United States with the rest being owned by coastal states. Of all the US lands—submerged and not—the federal or state government owns 73% of them.

By land area, the United States is the 4th largest nation on Earth, smaller than Russia, Canada and China (Antarctica is larger, but not a nation), weighing in at 3,805,943 square statute miles or 2,435,803,520 acres (an acre being about the size of an American football field).

Besides the 50 united states and the District of Columbia, the United States of America includes six populated territories (Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, and American Samoa), totaling 2,632,960 acres.

Also included are 11 uninhabited islands in the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea.

Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, Wake Island and Palmayra Atoll are all within the Pacific Remote Island Marine National Monument. The other Pacific islands of Wake and Midway islands are administered as a national wildlife refuge (there is also military airfield on Wake), totaling 11,992 acres of land (but allowing for control of vast seabeds; see below).

There are three Caribbean islands over which the US claims sovereignty under the Guano Islands Act of 1879. Navassa Island, administered as a US national wildlife refuge, is also claimed by Haiti. Serranilla Bank and Bajo Nuevo Bank are occupied by Columbia and are also claimed by Honduras, Jamaica, Nicaragua and the United States. All total is 114,560 acres of land and shallow sea.

Then there is the United States Exclusive Economic Zone (USEEZ) that extends 200 nautical (230.2 statute) miles off the 13,000 miles of coastline of the United States. The USEEZ is the largest EEZ in the world, containing 3.4 million square nautical miles (4.5 million square statute miles; or 2,882,000,000 acres).

Most of the USEEZ is federally “owned” as the US Outer Continental Shelf. The inner continental shelf is owned by the states from the shore of a state outward 3 nautical (3.3 statute) miles, unless it’s Texas, Louisiana or the Gulf Coast of Florida, where each are somewhat different.

The federal government owns 653,299,090 acres of land. 68% (443 million acres) is US Department of Interior holdings (mostly Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Reclamation). The Department of Agriculture has 28% (182 million acres), mostly administered by the Forest Service. The US Army has 2% (15 million acres) for military purposes and all other federal agencies have another 2% (14 million acres), including these agencies or departments: Army Corps of Engineers (civil purposes), Energy, Navy, Air Force, Tennessee Valley Authority, National Aeronautics And Space Administration, State, Transportation, Justice, Veterans Affairs, Commerce, Homeland Security, United States Postal Service, Independent Government Offices, Labor, National Science Foundation, Health and Human Services, Federal Communications Commission, Environmental Protection Agency, Defense/WHS, Treasury, National Archives and Records Administration, and Government Printing Office.

The US Exclusive Economic Zone (blue) is larger than the land area of the United States (dark green). Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (Click on image to enlarge.)

Most federal public lands are concentrated in the western states. Source: Wikipedia (Click on image to enlarge.)

The Merriam-Webster definition of “public land” encapsulates the broadest and the narrowest definitions: “land owned by a government; specifically:  that part of the United States public domain subject to sale or disposal under the homestead laws.”

In the United States, the federal, state and local governments all own “public land” though public access may be restricted for security or other reasons. Some commentators include as “public lands” those held for the benefit of Native American tribes. Most of the western states have “trust lands” given to them by the federal government at the time of statehood, the proceeds from are to be used to further education. These trust lands have public access, but they are not truly public lands.

The most narrow dictionary definition of those that can be sold under the homestead laws hasn’t applied to federal public lands since 1976 when Congress repealed the last of the homestead laws and decided that Bureau of Land Management holdings would generally remain in federal ownership.

This blog is about public lands, mostly federal, onshore or under the sea, but always with natural values.