What Is Federal Land?The United States of America –you too Hawaii, and Alaska,to scale, for once.
Ever since these states united to create America, the federal government of America, they and she fought mightily over the land which plains or forests or mountains or swamps to end up in each hand.
On the map, it looks like states hold all the cards, but they don’t.
Just under one third of land in the United States is federal.
But, that’s an average.
Looking at the percent of Federal Land in the states, the wester we go, the 𝑓𝑒𝑑𝑒𝑟𝑎𝑙𝑒𝑟 the land, and the less of the state that’s in each state.
There are eastern states with under one percent Federal Land, and five western states that control less than half of the land ‘in their borders.
First thing first: how did this happen?
America wasn’t always the mighty united.
Like us all, she started small, when states were young,new, and few, giving away but little for her to play.
But then America grew:Louisiana purchasing, Mexican cessioning,and manifest destinying her way across the continent.
But in this age of empires, it won’t do any good to say she owns the land unless she gets her citizens out there to occupy the vast, ‘totally unoccupied’ continent.
So America turns from hoarder to minimalist,disposing of as much of the land to new states and new settlers as she can.
Sometimes giving it away in literal races,where plots of land were drawn,homesteaders waited at a starting line, and BANG!
First family to a plot owns that plot.
She’s booting up a private property ladder from virgin lands,using contracts, and guns.
10% of all the land in the US was given away for free just to get people out West.
See also: railroad companies,which got the land either side of any track they could build for the length of a continent.
If you could live on or improve the land in the 1800s,America would probably give it to you.
But by the 1900s,most of the states are mostly in place,and the Age of Empires and Wagons Westward is over.
But America still had a ton of land,she didn’t or couldn’t give away.
And now that the states are settled, well.
What she has is all she will ever have,She turns away from her gifting minimalism,and becomes a curator of her collection of land.
This change was rather a shock to states expecting the land in their borders would be land in their borders, that Federal Land would continue to be turned over as it had for a century.
Thus, this map and a lot of angry western states,now up against a fully operational federal government,altering the deal.
Some states, like poor Utah and Nevada, found themselves with hardly any state in their state of Arizona: “Hey, hey! What about the reservations?
Are you going to talk about them?
Are they Federal Land?
Some of us have a lot of reservations in our state.”
CGP Grey: “Ahhh, the reservations.
Yes, what a great story for another time,Look, we can’t do the reservations right now, we just can’t!”
Okay, history aside, America has all this land now,but like, what is it for?
What is it for? A lot.
Almost all of the following will have an in general before it because there are almost 2,000 separate bureaucracies administering land that, were it a single country, would be in the top ten list of biggest countries.
But in general, most of the Federal Land falls under the control of the President, to whom a dozen secretaries report, of which we care about three, that run five departments.
First, the Department of Defense:she runs military bases,and nuclear silos, and all the toys of war.
America has to keep them somewhere,and if sororicide taught her anything,it’s don’t trust the states with weapons.
So keep them close on Federal Land she does.
While America’s military is big,the Department of Defense holds the least land of the top five.
Next is: The National Park Service:The Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone,and Blue Ridge Mountains.
If there’s an epic vista you’ve visited or heard of in America, it’s probably one of hers.
The National Parks is the celebrity of the group, and can really stand out.
Next biggest is the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Much less known, except if you’re in Alaska where 85% of her land is.
Fish and Wildlife is in the business of animal conservation,keeping land for America’s species under her aegis,not to be developed.
Then, there’s the Forest Service often confused with National Parks,but not remotely the same.
There’s many a breathtaking national forest you can hike through, but they’re not parks.
They’re more America’s resource tiles,leased for logging.
Plus, grassland tiles for grazing.
Forest Service’s job is to balance extraction with maintenance.
How well she does this is an endless source of argument between America and the states and the companies that want to use those resource tiles.
It’s a job that guarantees someone is always going to be angry.
Only you can prevent forest fires?
That’s the Forest Service because she deals with this kind of fire, as well as this kind of fire.
And it’s a job she splits with the last and the biggest: The Bureau of Land Management.
She does it all, from resolving cow disputes to leasing land for mining to building parks, to preserving the coastal waters of California(which, surprise California, are Federal Land!).
BLM does a lot and is the biggest which can make it very confusing about which agency does what, but think of it this way:
There are three goals: Conservation, Recreation, Extraction.BLM does all three.
FS does Conservation and Extraction.
F&W does Conservation.
And NPS does Conservation and Recreation.
Again, in general.
These four plus War control 97% of Federal Land.
The last three percent is miscellaneous: used by departments like the Postal Service, or NASA, or the Department of Energy or others.
OK, this is lovely,
but like what does it mean to say that land is federal?
Is it part of the state or not?
Well, this brings up the delicate and sensitive balance of power between the states and America.
And there’s an enormous amount of words words words around the sovereignty of governments.
But, ultimately, Federal Land belongs to America and she can do with it what she wants, and the states have to just suck it.
Most starkly in Nevada, where Federal Land was used for nuclear bomb testing.
Yeah, that’s a pretty big hole you punched in Nevada, America.
Oh, not just the once,When push comes to shove,America can shove.
That’s the most extreme example,but Federal Lands will often have their own separate federal law enforcement officers.
Like the Investigative Services Branch: a kind of FBI for National Parks.
Though state borders do matter here, for lesser crimes,federal officers will often dump suspects into the state courts to deal with.
Private citizens can’t buy property on Federal Land.
There are Americans who will tell you they live in a National Park.
Cape Cod and Fire Island National Parks are examples of this.
But if you zoom into official maps, you’ll often find hilarious borders that swoop around and in between developed and undeveloped areas.
There’s also military bases, which will have soldiers living in them, but they can’t own anything.
And because it’s Federal Land, the Department of Defense that builds the housing can ignore all of a state’s laws about housing or health codes.
So, a state can’t control in a meaningful way Federal Land in her borders.
Hundreds of acres of federal grassland might suddenly be filled with grazing cattle, or POW! be declared a national monument and preserved forever, or plumbed for oil and mined for minerals, with the state just standing on the sidelines watching.
Thus, states can’t build their own towns or parks or factories in Federal Land to,you know, collect any taxes from the land.
Which, once America made her intention to keep Federal Land forever, made the states with a lot of it start to grumble,grumble, grumble, GRUMBLE.
I’ll give you payment in lieu of taxes. Are you happy now?”
States: “Is this a joke?
Is this for real?”
Grumble, grumble, grumble, grumble.
All of this means today there’s a big political divide between the states that have a lot of Federal Land and the states that don’t.
With Eastern States thinking of Federal Land as belonging to the nation as a whole, which is easy to do when
you don’t have a lot of it within your borders and Federal Land, to you,means visiting Glacier National Park on vacation.
Meanwhile, Western states are getting nuclear bombs detonated in their back yards, and compensation they don’t think is fair
for land that affects them that they can’t control.
There’s a million more complications this simplification can’t possibly cover.
But, the best way to think about Federal Land is that while it may be in a state, it is not of the state.
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