The federal government is involved in land management on a grand scale. As of 1989 the federal government owned 662,158,000 acres, about 1.035 million square miles of the United States, most of it west of the Mississippi. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages hundreds of millions of acres. Much of that land is low-value land for reasons of low rainfall, poor access, or the like. Its role is, therefore, more one of stewardship than of planning for development.
In the United States, 231 million acres (about 361,000 square miles) are designated as National Forest, of which almost 83 percent is actually owned by the federal government. Again, the role of the federal government is largely one of stewardship. Shaping the pattern of settlement in the nation is not a primary intent. Nonetheless, decisions about how much development to permit in national forests and where to permit the cutting of timber have economic consequences that exert some influence on the pattern of settlement. And, of course, in the long term, decisions by BLM and the Forest Service about how hundreds of millions of acres are to be used cannot help but have an effect on the environmental quality of vast areas. The National Park system, often considered to have begun with the setting aside of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, now covers an area of about 119,000 square miles.
For many years this system of land management has seemed a fixed feature of the American scene. In recent years, however, particularly since the Republican Party took control of both houses of Congress in the 1994 elections, there has been pressure on the federal government to divest itself of some of its landholdings and turn these back to the states. This may be regarded as another part of the "sagebrush rebellion" noted in Chapter 15. So far the pressure has been greatest to change the ownership of lands managed by BLM. There has been somewhat less pressure regarding lands managed by the National Forest Service and much less regarding lands managed by the National Park Service. The pressure comes largely from grazing, mining, and lumber interests.
The federal position is that the legality of federal ownership has been upheld before by the courts and is beyond doubt. Federal land management agencies and many environmentalists argue that land is being held in stewardship for future generations and it is important that this stewardship continue. Many environmentalists fear that if land is turned over to the states, transfers from state hands to private hands will follow, partly as a result of local political pressures and partly because sales of land will ease pressures on state budgets. Commercial considerations will then, they fear, take precedence over the interests of future generations. But arguments can be made on both sides of the issue. Against the federal stewardship position it may be argued that the states, being closer to the situation, may do a better job of land management. It may also be argued that if some land (for example, grazing or timberland) comes into private ownership, the owners will have a powerful financial interest in its long-term management and thus will do a better job than, say, BLM. On purely legal grounds the consensus is that the federal government's position is not likely to be shaken. If change occurs, it will happen because sufficient political force has developed to cause the Congress to change the laws.