How did the federal government get the land?
The history of federal land ownership has been largely one of divestiture and public use, not acquisition. As the United States expanded across the continent, it did so by purchasing or taking the land that became new states. (Among the groups it took land from were Native Americans.)
Over time, it transferred land to state governments and individuals, largely through homesteading and land grants, which allowed farmers to procure parcels of land for agricultural use. The government also tended to allow free use of unclaimed lands by ranchers and others, though there were skirmishes over the years when settlers tried to fence in public land or claimed land in Indian territories. That strategy worked well in the Midwest, where very little land remains in federal hands. East of the Mississippi, for example, the federal government owns only 4 percent of land.
But in the 11 states in the West (including New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, and not counting Alaska), a combination of geography and politics slowed things down. The many mountainous, arid and difficult-to-reach tracts of land in the West simply weren’t attractive to farmers. Settlers claimed the few valleys where farming was feasible and built towns. The only thing most of the remaining land was good for was grazing, but cattle ranchers and sheep herders needed large tracts of land to feed their livestock, not the smaller parcels they could claim through homestead policies.
Isn’t the government protecting that land?
As conservation became a more important public policy goal, and politicians became concerned about substantial corruption involved in earlier land sales, efforts to hand over large tracts of federal land slowed. Some land was set aside for parks, wilderness and conservation.
Much of the 247 million acres managed by the Bureau of Land Management is available for leases to ranchers seeking grass for their cattle and to companies that extract minerals or oil. The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, where Ammon Bundy and his supporters have occupied a building this week, is set aside as conservation land, where no development can take place. The federal land in Nevada that was central to Cliven Bundy’s 2014 dispute with federal officials was available for grazing to cattlemen willing to pay a lease fee, but with restrictions meant to protect the endangered desert tortoise.
Why are there cattle grazing on it? In the early 1900s, cattle farming became a speculative boom because farmers realized that the federal government was basically giving away a valuable free commodity: grass. This quickly became a problem that economists call the “tragedy of the commons.” Everyone was allowed to let cattle graze the millions of acres of public grass. Ranchers, local officials and lawmakers got together and created a law called the Taylor Grazing Act, which effectively created a federal body called the Division of Grazing to manage the grazing of these lands.
So, why the anger?
Grumbling about federal control of local lands is nothing new. But research from the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service suggests that the federal government is a decent, if inflexible, landlord. Compared with private owners, it tends to charge lower rents for grazing and mining permits. Some of the land could be sold to individuals, and some has been — the government has sold hundreds of thousands of acres in the last 25 years. But that probably won’t help the protesters. “The ranchers couldn’t afford to buy these lands anyway,” said John Freemuth, a professor of public policy at Boise State University, who studies land-use policy. In recent years, Congress has considered legislation to transfer ownership of public lands from federal hands into state control. Advocates say that state ownership would be more responsive to the preferences of the people who wish to use the land. But studies have established that there would be substantial administrative costs for states if they took over. And the federal government transfers a lot of its leasing revenue back to states to compensate for the taxes the states might have collected if the land were in private hands. If they owned the land, the states would have to collect rents and administer permits themselves. An economic study from Utah in 2012 found that taking over land management would cost the state government a substantial sum: $275 million a year. It may turn out that if the states own it, the ranchers will just be angry at another level of government for a different set of reasons.