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Uncle Sam's reality

By Henry Lamb
web posted August 2, 2004

The federal government owns nearly 33 percent of all the land in the United States. Why?

Nothing in the U.S. Constitution authorizes the federal government to own any land beyond Washington D.C., and that which may be required "...for the erection of forts, arsenals, dock-yards and other needful buildings...," and then, only when purchased from the state, with the approval of the state legislature. (Article I, Section 8)

Why, then, does the government own so much land? Why is the government gobbling up more and more land through dozens of programs that use tax dollars to buy land from private owners?

When the federal government first acquired the land beyond the original 13 colonies, it was acquired to increase security, to prevent other nations from gaining a foothold too close to the U.S. border. It was acquired expressly for the purpose of promoting settlement by U.S. citizens, rather than by citizens from other nations.

People who owned, or had established rights on the land when it was acquired, were guaranteed that those rights would be honored by the new owner. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase (Article III), and the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (Article VIII) specifically exempt privately owned property from the transfer, and require the United States to accept and honor the rights of those people, the same as any other citizen of the United States.

Throughout most of the 1800s, the federal government worked hard to get the newly acquired land into private hands. The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed people to claim 160 acres for a filing fee of $18. After five years of "proving up" the land, the new owner received a deed to the land, signed by the President. By the end of the century, a growing minority of people began to pressure government to hold the land for "all the people." John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, argued that the land should be reserved for nature. Gifford Pinchot, a self-described Republican "progressive," became the chief of the Forest Division of the Department of Agriculture. He argued that the forests, and all natural resources should be managed by the government for "all the people."

With the rise of the socialist movement early in the 20th century, the idea of giving, or selling federal land to private owners was repugnant to the enlightened intelligentsia. By the 1930s, the Wilderness Society openly advocated the "nationalization" of all forests. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 severely limited how federal land could be used, and firmly established the federal government as the King over its land, and required permits and rents for its use - even on the land that had been in private ownership at the time of acquisition.

As the newly acquired territories turned into states, the equal footing doctrine of the nation's founders was ignored. Both James Madison, and George Mason insisted that the admission of future states be on an equal basis. This principle was affirmed in 1796 when Tennessee was admitted, but lost importance as the western states were admitted.

All of Tennessee's land belonged to Tennessee when it was admitted; when Alaska was admitted, more than 90 percent of the land was retained by the federal government. Most of the land in western states was retained by the federal government when those states were admitted to the Union, in complete disregard of the equal footing doctrine.

Socialists, progressives, (both Democrats and Republicans), and environmental organizations have no problem with federal ownership of land. In fact, in recent years, they have sponsored legislation and programs to buy more and more private property to expand the federal inventory. These people forgot, or choose to reject, a fundamental principle recognized by America's founders: prosperity arises from private enterprise, and private enterprise arises from private property.

This nation's prosperity is tied directly to private enterprise. As the misguided policy of government ownership and control of land expands, prosperity, inevitably, must diminish. Even more important is the loss of individual freedom, as government expands the scope of its control.

It's not too late to reverse this trend. A growing minority of people now see the fallacy of "government control" of land use, and government ownership of land. With increasing frequency, individuals and organizations are asking "why" the government owns all this land. There is nothing the federal government does with its land, that could not be done better by the states, or by private owners within the states.

It's time for Uncle Sam to get out of the real estate business, and return its land to the states, and to the private owners who hold the key to our nation's future. 

Henry Lamb is the executive vice president of the Environmental Conservation Organization (ECO), and chairman of Sovereignty International.

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