Federal Land Ownership: Current Acquisition and Disposal Authorities
Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress
The federal government owns about 653 million acres, heavily concentrated in 12 western states.
Four agencies—the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land
Management, all in the Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service in the Department
of Agriculture—administer about 95% of those lands. This report describes the primary federal
land acquisition and disposal authorities of these agencies, as background for congressional
consideration of measures to acquire or dispose of particular land and to establish new authorities
or amend or terminate existing ones. Congress faces questions on the adequacy of existing
authorities, the extent and location of their use, the amount of land in federal ownership overall,
and the sources and adequacy of funds for land acquisition, among other issues.
The nature of the acquisition and disposal authorities of the federal land management agencies
varies. In general, the acquisition authorities are designed to allow the four agencies to bring into
federal ownership lands that many believe would benefit from federal management. Disposal
authorities generally are designed to allow agencies to convey land that is no longer needed for a
federal purpose or that might be chiefly valuable for another purpose. Many of the authorities
specify particular circumstances where they can be used, such as the conveyance of Forest
Service land for educational purposes.
The extent to which the agencies have authority to acquire and dispose of land differs
considerably. The Bureau of Land Management has broad authority for both acquisitions and
disposals under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. The agency has other
authorities for disposing of land, including two laws that allow the agency to retain the proceeds
for subsequent land acquisition, among other purposes. By contrast, the National Park Service has
no general authority to acquire or dispose of land. The authorities for the Forest Service and the
Fish and Wildlife Service are somewhere in between. The Forest Service has authority to acquire
lands only within the boundaries of a national forest. The agency has various authorities to
dispose of land, but they are relatively constrained (very specific authorities, such as for
townsites) and infrequently used. The Fish and Wildlife Service has various authorities to acquire
lands, but no general authority to dispose of its lands. The agency frequently uses acquisition
authority under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1929, because of the availability of funding
through the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund. Congress also enacts legislation to acquire or
dispose of lands and in some cases the President has such authority with regard to the four
agencies covered here.
Current Federal Land Acquisition Authorities..........................................................................3
National Park Service.........................................................................................................3
U.S. Forest Service.............................................................................................................4
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service............................................................................................5
Bureau of Land Management..............................................................................................5
Current Federal Land Disposal Authorities...............................................................................6
National Park Service.........................................................................................................6
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service............................................................................................6
U.S. Forest Service.............................................................................................................7
Bureau of Land Management..............................................................................................8
Table 1. Federal Lands, by State or Region and by Agency..........................................................10
Author Contact Information...........................................................................................................11
he federal government owns about 653 million acres, more than a quarter of the land in the
United States. These lands are heavily concentrated in 12 western states (including Alaska,
but not Hawaii), where the federal government owns more than half of the overall land 1T
area, ranging from 30% in Montana and Washington to 84% in Nevada. Four federal agencies—
the National Park Service (NPS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and Bureau of Land
Management (BLM), all in the Department of the Interior (DOI), and the U.S. Forest Service
(USFS) in the Department of Agriculture—administer about 95% of those lands, as shown in
Table 1 at the end of this report.
This report describes the primary authorities of these agencies for acquiring and disposing of
land. It provides the background for congressional consideration of measures to acquire or th
dispose of particular parcels or to modify the authorities. The 110 Congress faces questions on
the adequacy of existing authorities, the nature, extent, and location of their use, the total acreage
of federal lands, and the sources and adequacy of land acquisition funds, among other issues.
The various acquisition and disposal authorities were provided by Congress through various laws
enacted over time. The extent to which the agencies have authority to acquire and dispose of land,
and the nature of the authorities, vary considerably. Some of the agencies have relatively broad
authority to acquire and/or dispose of land. Most notably, the BLM has broad authority for both
acquisitions and disposals. Other agencies have no general authority to acquire or dispose of land,
as is the case for the NPS. The authorities for the FS and FWS are somewhere in between. The FS
has authority to acquire lands only within the boundaries of a national forest. The agency has
various authorities to dispose of land, but they are relatively constrained and infrequently used.
The FWS has various authorities to acquire lands, but no general authority to dispose of its lands.
The acquisition authorities differ as to the circumstances where they apply, and the disposal
authorities likewise differ as to their purposes. Thus, the particular authority at issue should be
consulted where a specific acquisition or disposal is contemplated. Most generally, the acquisition
authorities are designed to allow federal agencies to acquire lands that could be viewed as
benefitting from federal management. Among other circumstances, acquisition might be
authorized to bring inholdings or lands adjacent to federal lands into federal ownership, to
improve or simplify management of federal lands. Acquisitions also might be authorized to
conserve species, protect natural and cultural resources, and increase opportunities for recreation.
The disposal authorities generally are designed to allow federal agencies to dispose of land that is
no longer required for a federal purpose, or that might be chiefly valuable for another purpose.
For instance, disposal might be authorized for lands that are inefficient to manage. Other reasons
for disposals might include to allow lands to be used for agriculture, community development,
mineral extraction, and educational purposes.
Agencies also acquire and dispose of federal land in exchanges. Exchanges are not discussed
separately in this report, as often the authorities to acquire and dispose of lands also apply to land
exchanges. However, there are provisions of law particularly applicable to exchanges. The
exchange authorities for the NPS and FWS are relatively narrow. The Federal Land Policy and
Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA, as amended; 43 U.S.C. §§ 1701-1781, et al.) provides
1 U.S. General Services Administration, Office of Governmentwide Policy, Federal Real Property Profile, As of
September 30, 2004, at http://www.gsa.gov/gsa/cm_attachments/GSA_DOCUMENT/
Annual%20Report%20%20FY2004%20Final_R2M-n11_0Z5RDZ-i34K-pR.pdf, Table 16, pp. 18-19.
broader exchange authority, and is the main authority governing exchanges by the BLM and 2
The nature of the acquisition and disposal authorities covered in this report, and the extent and
circumstances of their use by the agencies, form the backdrop for congressional consideration of
legislation pertaining to land acquisition and disposal. Recent Congresses have considered
measures to provide agencies with additional acquisition or disposal authorities or to revise such th
authorities. With regard to additional authorities, for instance, the 106 Congress enacted
legislation to allow the Secretary of Agriculture to dispose of National Forest System lands for
educational purposes (Title II of P.L. 106-577). With respect to amendment of existing authorities, th
for example, the 108 Congress expanded the purposes for which the proceeds of land sales under 3
the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act (SNPLMA, P.L. 105-263) could be used.
Congress also addresses acquisition and disposal policy in the context of deliberations on the role
and goals of the federal government in owning and managing land generally. For instance, in the th
109 Congress hearings were held on legislation requiring disposal of federal land before federal
acquisition in states where 25% or more of the land is already in federal ownership.
In addition, Congress frequently considers legislation authorizing and governing the acquisition th
or disposal of specific land. The 109 Congress, for instance, directed the conveyance of BLM
land to the city of Eugene (OR) to establish a wildlife viewing area and build an environmental
education center (P.L. 109-457). Congress may consider such legislation to provide an agency
with acquisition or disposal authority because it is lacking. In other cases, Congress directs a
particular acquisition or disposal to facilitate the action. For instance, the legislation may seek to
direct an acquisition based on Congress’s assessment of public needs and priorities. It may
expedite the process for acquiring a parcel of land, such as by limiting the assessments and
evaluations that would ordinarily be required under law. The legislation also might authorize
actions not ordinarily permitted, such as the conveyance of land at no cost rather than at fair
The 110th Congress is faced with varied issues related to federal land acquisition and disposal.
They include the adequacy of existing authorities for managing the federal estate, and whether
new authorities or changes to existing ones might be desirable. The public and Members of
Congress are interested in agencies disposal and acquisition efforts, and especially in the location
of the transactions. Congress continues to consider bills to direct numerous, specific acquisitions
and disposals. Further, the amount of land in federal ownership overall remains controversial.
Many western citizens and Members of Congress are concerned about what they feel is excessive
federal influence over their lives and economies, and contend that the federal government should
divest itself of many lands. (See Table 1 at the end of this report.) Others support the policy of
retaining lands in federal ownership, and sometimes advocate adding more lands that they believe 4
Another set of issues pertains to the sources and adequacy of funds for land acquisition. The
principal financing mechanism for federal land acquisition is annual appropriations under the
2 See CRS Report RS21967, Land Exchanges: Bureau of Land Management Process and Issues, by Carol Hardy
3 Section 342 of P.L. 108-108 directed SNPLMA funds to Lake Tahoe for environmental restoration projects.
4 For background, see CRS Report RL34267, Federal Land Ownership: Constitutional Authority and the History of
Acquisition, Disposal, and Retention, by Kristina Alexander and Ross W. Gorte.
Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).5 LWCF is credited with $900 million annually from
designated sources. Congress determines the level of appropriations each year. Total
appropriations for land acquisition and the amount provided to each of the federal land
management agencies have varied substantially since the origin of the program more than 40
years ago. Appropriations for federal land acquisition more than tripled during the five fiscal
years ending in FY2001 (rising to $453.4 million), but have declined steadily since then (to
$113.0 million in FY2007).
Additional sources of funding are available for some agencies or under certain authorities. The
FWS has a large additional source of funds for land acquisition, through the Migratory Bird
Conservation Fund, as discussed below. The BLM has authorities allowing the agency to keep the
proceeds of land sales and use them for subsequent acquisitions and other purposes, as detailed
below. The application of these authorities, including the uses of the proceeds, has been of
interest to Congress. Whether similar authorities might be desirable for other agencies or under
other circumstances also might be of interest.
The four federal land management agencies have different authorities for acquiring lands. In
general, all four agencies are authorized to accept land as gifts and bequests. In addition, each is
generally authorized to use eminent domain—taking private property, through condemnation, for
public use—while compensating the landowner. However, this practice is controversial, and it is
rarely used by the land management agencies.
The primary land acquisition authorities are described below for each of the four federal land
management agencies. In general, the agencies are presented in the order of the breadth of their
authorities, with the NPS (the narrowest authorities) first and the BLM (the broadest authorities)
The NPS does not have general authority to acquire lands to establish units of the National Park 6
System. Rather, most units have been created by Congress, although the President also may
establish one type of unit—national monuments. Congress often first enacts a law requiring the
NPS to evaluate an area for possible addition to the System. An act of Congress creating a park
unit typically identifies the boundaries and authorizes the NPS to acquire the nonfederal lands
within those boundaries. The Secretary of the Interior is authorized to make boundary
adjustments for “proper preservation, protection, interpretation, or management” and to acquire
the nonfederal lands within the adjusted boundary, under the provisions and conditions of 16
U.S.C. § 460l-9(c).
The President has authority to create national monuments on federal lands under the Antiquities
Act of 1906 (16 U.S.C. §§ 431, et seq). More than 100 monuments have been created by
presidential proclamation. Most are managed by the NPS, but some are managed by the BLM and
5 See CRS Report RL33531, Land and Water Conservation Fund: Overview, Funding History, and Current Issues, by
Carol Hardy Vincent.
6 See CRS Report RS20158, National Park System: Establishing New Units, by Carol Hardy Vincent.
other agencies. Recent proclamations creating national monuments with nonfederal land within
the boundaries typically have specified that these lands will become part of the monument upon
acquisition by the United States.
Under law, the Secretary of the Interior and the NPS have responsibilities related to the potential
acquisition of lands for the National Park System. For instance, the Secretary is directed “to
investigate, study, and continually monitor the welfare of” areas that could potentially be added to
the System, and to report to Congress on possible additions (16 U.S.C. § 1a-5). The general
management plan for each unit is to include “indications of potential modifications to the external
boundaries of the unit, and the reasons therefor” (§ 1a-7). The Secretary is to prepare a
“systematic and comprehensive review of certain aspects of the National Park System” in a report
to Congress at least every three years (§ 1a-9). This report is to include a “comprehensive listing
of all authorized but unacquired lands within the exterior boundaries of each unit” (§ 1a-11(a))
and a “priority listing of all such unacquired parcels” (§ 1a-11(b)).
The Secretary of Agriculture has various authorities to acquire lands for the National Forest
System (NFS), although the lands must be within the proclaimed boundaries of a national forest.
Many national forests contain substantial acreages of nonfederal lands within their proclaimed
boundaries, particularly in the East, where forests were established after extensive settlement.
Western national forests average about 10% nonfederal land within their boundaries, while the
national forests in the Eastern and Southern Regions average about 45% nonfederal land within
their boundaries. The USFS has no regulatory authority over the uses of nonfederal lands within
the boundaries of the national forests.
Each national forest was originally created by presidential proclamation, but the President’s
authority to proclaim new forests and modify previous proclamations was terminated in 1976.
Today, new national forests can be created only by an act of Congress, and national forest
boundaries can be modified only by an act of Congress.
The first and broadest USFS land acquisition authority was provided in the Weeks Law of 1911
(16 U.S.C. § 515):
The Secretary is hereby authorized and directed to examine, locate, and purchase such
forested, cut-over, or denuded lands within the watersheds of navigable streams as in his
judgment may be necessary to the regulation of the flow of navigable streams or for the
production of timber.
Originally, the acquisitions were to be approved by a National Forest Reservation Commission,
but the Commission was terminated in § 17 of the National Forest Management Act of 1976
(NFMA; 16 U.S.C. §§ 513-518).
Other laws authorize land acquisition for the national forests, typically in specific areas or for 7
specific purposes. For example, § 205 of FLPMA authorizes the acquisition of access corridors
to national forests across nonfederal lands (43 U.S.C. § 1715(a)).
7 The 1937 Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act (7 U.S.C. §§ 1010-1012) authorized the Secretary of Agriculture to
establish “a program of land conservation and land utilization” for acquiring marginal lands not suited for agriculture.
Lands may be added to the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS) in a number of ways. A
principal FWS land acquisition authority is the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1929 (MBTA; 16
U.S.C. §§ 703, et seq.). This act authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to recommend areas
“necessary for the conservation of migratory birds” to the Migratory Bird Conservation
Commission, after consulting with the relevant governor (or state agency) and appropriate local
government officials (§ 715c). The Secretary may then purchase or rent areas approved by the
Commission (§ 715d(1)), and acquire any area or interest therein (§ 715d(2)).
The MBTA is a frequently-used authority, because of the availability of funding through the
Migratory Bird Conservation Fund (MBCF). The MBCF is supported from three sources: the sale
of hunting and conservation stamps (commonly known as duck stamps); import duties on arms
and ammunition; and a portion of certain refuge entrance fees. MBCF funds are permanently
appropriated to the extent of receipts, and after paying certain administrative costs may be used
for the “location, ascertainment, and acquisition of suitable areas for migratory bird refuges ...” (§
718d(b)). However, the acquisition must be “approved by the Governor of the State or appropriate
State agency” (§ 715k-5). The predictability of funding and permanent authority for use make the
MBCF, and thus the MBTA, particularly important for FWS land acquisition.
Other laws provide general authority to expand the NWRS, including the Fish and Wildlife
Coordination Act of 1934 (16 U.S.C. §§ 661-667a), the Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956 (16 U.S.C.
§§ 742a, et seq.), and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (16 U.S.C. §§ 1531-1544). Further,
FLPMA authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to withdraw lands from the public domain for
creating or adding to refuges (which would be an interagency transfer); withdrawals exceeding 8
5,000 acres are subject to congressional approval (43 U.S.C. § 1714(c)). In contrast to NPS and
FS land acquisition, where the lands generally must be within the boundaries of established units,
the FWS can acquire new lands to create a new refuge under the general FWS authorities cited
above, as well as under certain other laws.
Some units have been created by specific Acts of Congress, such as Protection Island NWR (WA)
and Bayou Sauvage NWR (LA). Units also can be created by executive order; for example, the 9
Midway Atoll NWR was created by President Clinton in Executive Order 13022.
The BLM has broad, general authority to acquire lands, principally under § 205 of FLPMA.
Specifically, the Secretary of the Interior is authorized (43 U.S.C. § 1715(a)):
... to acquire pursuant to this Act [FLPMA] by purchase, exchange, donation, or eminent
domain, lands or interests therein: Provided, That with respect to the public lands, the
Under this program, the USFS acquired and established 20 national grasslands and 8 land utilization projects that
account for 2% of the NFS; in addition, millions of acres acquired under this authority have been transferred to the
BLM. However, the authority to acquire lands was repealed in 1962.
8 These procedures result in termination of executive actions other than by legislation, which may well be
unconstitutional in light of Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) v. Chadha, 462 U.S. 919 (1983).
9 61 Fed. Reg. 56875 (Oct. 31, 1996).
Secretary may exercise the power of eminent domain only if necessary to secure access to
public lands, and then only if the lands so acquired are confined to as narrow a corridor as is
necessary to serve such purpose.
The BLM may acquire land or interests in land, especially inholdings (non-federal lands
surrounded by the agency’s lands), for a variety of reasons. These include to protect threatened
natural and cultural resources, increase opportunities for public recreation, restore the health of
the land, and improve management of these areas. The BLM does not have designated units for
management; rather, it manages federal lands that were not reserved for parks, refuges, and
forests or disposed to states and the private sector. Thus, the BLM is not restricted to acquiring
lands within unit boundaries.
The four federal land management agencies also have different authorities for disposing lands. In
contrast to the acquisition authorities that apply to the four agencies (accepting gifts/donations
and eminent domain), there are no general disposal authorities. The disposal authorities are
discussed below for each of the four agencies in the order of their apparent breadth, with the NPS
(the narrowest authorities) first and the BLM (the broadest authorities) last. Note that the FWS
and USFS are in reverse order from the acquisition authorities, since the FWS has broader
acquisition authorities, while the USFS has broader disposal authorities.
The NPS does not have general authority to dispose of National Park System lands. Units and
lands of the Park System that were established by Acts of Congress can only be disposed of by
Acts of Congress. Preservation of park units is a management goal and several laws limit the
power of the Secretary of the Interior to change park boundaries. Non-NPS lands encompassed by
minor boundary adjustments can be acquired through land exchanges, but “the Secretary may not
alienate [dispose of] property administered as part of the national park system in order to acquire
lands by exchange” (16 U.S.C. § 460l-9(c)).
Presidents have modified the boundaries of national monuments established by previous
presidential proclamations, in some cases reducing the size of the monument. However, no
president has terminated a monument established by proclamation. Further, national monuments
proclaimed by a president cannot be returned to the public domain for disposal under the BLM
land disposal authorities. Specifically, “The Secretary shall not ... modify or revoke any
withdrawal creating national monuments under” the Antiquities Act (43 U.S.C. § 1714(j)).
The FWS does not have general authority to dispose of its lands. With certain exceptions, wildlife
refuge lands administered by the FWS can be disposed only by an act of Congress (16 U.S.C. §§
668dd(a)(5) and (6)). For refuge lands reserved from the public domain, FLPMA prohibits the
Secretary of the Interior from modifying or revoking any withdrawal which added lands to the
NWRS (43 U.S.C. § 1714(j)). For acquired lands, disposal is allowed only if: (1) the disposal is
part of an authorized land exchange (16 U.S.C. §§ 668dd(a)(6) and (b)(3)); or (2) the Secretary
determines the lands are no longer needed and the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission
approves the disposal (§ 668dd(a)(5)). In the latter case, the disposal must recover the acquisition
cost or be at the fair market value (whichever is higher).
The Secretary of Agriculture has numerous authorities to dispose of NFS lands, all constrained in 10
various ways and seldom used. In the oldest (1897), the President was authorized (16 U.S.C. §
... to revoke, modify, or suspend any and all Executive orders and proclamations or any part
thereof issued under section 471 of this title [which had authorized the President to create
forest reserves], from time to time as he shall deem best for the public interests. By such
modification he may reduce the area or change the boundary lines or may vacate altogether
any order creating a national forest.
The 1897 Act also provided for the return to the public domain of lands better suited for
agriculture or mining. These provisions on modifying earlier reservations have not been repealed,
but in 1976, § 9 of NFMA prohibited returning to the public domain any land reserved or
withdrawn from the public domain, except by an act of Congress (16 U.S.C. § 1609).
The 1911 Weeks Law authorizes the Secretary to dispose of NFS land “chiefly valuable for
agriculture” which was included in lands acquired (inadvertently or otherwise), if agricultural use
will not injure the forests or streamflows and the lands are not needed for public purposes (16
U.S.C. § 519).
The Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act of 1937 (7 U.S.C. §§ 1010-1012) authorizes the disposal of
lands acquired under its authority “under such terms and conditions as he [the Secretary of
Agriculture] deems will best accomplish the purposes of this” title, but “only to public authorities
and agencies and only on condition that the property is used for public purposes” (7 U.S.C. §
1011(c)). However, the USFS has adopted regulations stating that the Bankhead-Jones lands
comprising the national grasslands will be held permanently (36 C.F.R. § 213).
The 1958 Townsites Act authorizes the Secretary to transfer up to 640 acres of NFS land adjacent
to communities in Alaska or the 11 western states for townsites, if the “indigenous community
objectives ... outweigh the public objectives and values which would be served by maintaining
such tract in Federal ownership” (16 U.S.C. § 478a). There is to be a public notice of the
application for such transfer, and upon a “satisfactory showing of need,” the Secretary may offer
the land to a local governmental entity at “not less than the fair market value.”
The 1983 Small Tracts Act authorizes the Secretary to dispose of NFS land, by sale or exchange,
if valued at no more than $150,000 and meets one of three conditions (16 U.S.C. § 521e):
• parcels of 40 acres or less interspersed with or adjacent to lands transferred out of
federal ownership under the mining laws and which are inefficient to administer
because of their size or location;
10 This discussion excludes the authority to dispose of administrative sites and related facilities under the Forest Service
Facility Realignment and Enhancement Act of 2005, Title V of P.L. 109-54, the FY2006 Interior appropriations act.
• parcels of 10 acres or less encroached upon by improvements based in good faith
upon an erroneous survey or other land description; or
• road rights-of-way substantially surrounded by nonfederal land and not needed
by the federal government, subject to the right of first refusal for adjoining
The land can be disposed of for cash, lands, interests in land, or any combination thereof for the
value of the land being disposed (§ 521d) plus “all reasonable costs of administration, survey, and
appraisal incidental to such conveyance” (§ 521f).
Finally, the Education Land Grant Act, Title II of P.L. 106-577, authorizes the Secretary to
transfer up to 80 acres of NFS land for a nominal cost upon written application of a public school
district. Section 202(e) provides for reversion of the title to the federal government if the lands
are not used for the educational purposes for which they were acquired.
The BLM can dispose of its public lands under several authorities. A primary means of disposal is
through exchanges under FLPMA, as amended. The exchange must serve the public interest, and
the federal and nonfederal lands in the exchange must be located in the same state and be of
roughly equal value (with cash adjustments possible), among other requirements.
Other general disposal authorities include (1) sales under FLPMA; (2) sales or exchanges under
the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act (FLTFA; Title II of P.L. 106-248); (3) patents under
the 1872 General Mining Law; and (4) transfers to other governmental units for public 11
Section 203 of FLPMA authorizes the BLM to sell certain tracts of public land that meet specific
criteria (43 U.S.C. § 1713(a)):
(a) A tract of the public lands (except land in units of the National Wilderness Preservation
System, National Wild and Scenic Rivers Systems, and National System of Trails) may be
sold under this Act where, as a result of land use planning required under section 1712 of this
title, the Secretary determines that the sale of such tract meets the following disposal criteria:
(1) such tract because of its location or other characteristics is difficult and uneconomic
to manage as part of the public lands, and is not suitable for management by another Federal
department or agency; or
(2) such tract was acquired for a specific purpose and the tract is no longer required for
that or any other Federal purpose; or
(3) disposal of such tract will serve important public objectives, including but not
limited to, expansion of communities and economic development, which cannot be achieved
11 The Homestead Act and many other authorities for disposing of the public lands were repealed by FLPMA in 1976,
with a 10-year extension in Alaska. The General Services Administration has the authority to dispose of surplus federal
property under the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949; however, that act generally excludes the
public domain, mineral lands, and lands previously withdrawn or reserved from the public domain (40 U.S.C. §
prudently or feasibly on land other than public land and which outweigh other public
objectives and values, including, but not limited to, recreation and scenic values, which
would be served by maintaining such tract in Federal ownership.
The size of the tracts for sale is to be determined by “the land use capabilities and development
requirements.” Proposals to sell tracts of more than 2,500 acres must first be submitted to 12
Congress, and such can be disapproved by Congress. Tracts are to be sold at not less than their
fair market value, generally through competitive bidding, although modified competition and 13
non-competitive sales are allowed.
FLTFA provides for the sale or exchange of BLM lands identified for disposal under the BLM
land use plans in effect at the date of enactment. This act created a separate Treasury account for
proceeds from the sale or exchange, and provides for the use of those funds by the Secretary of
the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture. The Secretaries may acquire nonfederal lands,
especially inholdings and lands adjacent to federal lands that contain exceptional resources. Up to
20% of the funds may be used for administrative costs, and at least 80% of the funds for
acquisition are to be used in the state in which the funds were generated.
The General Mining Law of 1872 allows access to hardrock minerals on federal lands that have
not been withdrawn from entry. Minerals within a valid mining claim can be developed without
obtaining full title to the land. However, with evidence of valuable minerals and sufficient
developmental effort, mining claims can be patented, with full title transferred to the claimant
upon payment of the appropriate fee—$5.00 per acre for vein or lode claims (30 U.S.C. § 29) or
$2.50 for placer claims (30 U.S.C. § 37), plus various filing fees. Non-mineral lands used for
associated milling or other processing operations can also be patented (30 U.S.C. § 42). Patented
lands may be used for purposes other than mineral development. Beginning in FY1995, Congress
has enacted a series of annual moratoria on issuing mineral patents in the annual Interior
appropriations acts, effectively preventing this means of federal land disposal. Congress 14
continues to debate mining law reform.
The Recreation and Public Purposes Act (43 U.S.C. § 869) authorizes the Secretary, upon
application by a qualified applicant, to:
... dispose of any public lands to a State, Territory, county, municipality, or other State,
Territorial, or Federal instrumentality or political subdivision for any public purposes, or to a
nonprofit corporation or nonprofit association for any recreational or any public purpose
consistent with its articles of incorporation or other creating authority.
The act specifies conditions, qualifications, and acreage limitations for transfer, and provides for
restoring the lands to the public domain if conditions are not met.
The BLM also has several geographically-limited land sale authorities. The largest is the
Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act (P.L. 105-263) which allows the Secretary of the
12 This and certain other provisions of FLPMA may be unconstitutional under INS v. Chadha, 462 U.S. 919 (1983).
13 Desert lands also can be disposed under other laws. The Carey Act (43 U.S.C. § 641) authorizes transfers to a state,
upon application and meeting certain requirements, while the Desert Entry Land Act (43 U.S.C. § 321) allows citizens
to reclaim and patent 320 acres of desert public land. These provisions are seldom used, however, because the lands
must be classified as available and sufficient water rights for settling on the land must be obtained.
14 See CRS Report RL33908, Mining on Federal Lands: Hardrock Minerals, by Marc Humphries.
Interior to sell or exchange certain lands around Las Vegas. The BLM and the local government
unit jointly decide on the lands to be offered for sale or exchange. In general, 85% of the proceeds
are deposited into a special account, and are available to the Secretary of the Interior for land
acquisition in Nevada. The Secretary has approved of acquisitions for each of the federal land
managing agencies. The other 15% of the proceeds are provided to the State of Nevada and
certain local entities for state and local purposes, such as the Nevada general education fund.
Other statutes similarly provide for BLM land sales in particular areas (mostly in Nevada), with
specific allocations of the proceeds.
Table 1. Federal Lands, by State or Region and by Agency
(in millions of acres)
Alaska 11 Western Statesa Otherb Total
National Park Service 51.09 20.13 6.90 78.13
Fish and Wildlife Service 76.61 6.32 7.55 90.47
Bureau of Land Management 83.54 174.35 0.39 258.28
USDA Forest Service 21.97 141.80 29.02 192.79
Other Federalc 19.29 10.73 3.61 33.63
Federal Total 252.50 353.33 47.47 653.30
Nonfederal Total 112.99 399.62 1,105.44 1,618.04
Percent Federal 69.1% 46.9% 3.1% 28.8%
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Service, Land Areas of the National Forest System, as of Sept. 30, 2007, at
U.S. Dept. of the Interior, National Park Service, National Park Service Listing of Acreage as of 9/30/07, at
http://www2.nature.nps.gov/stats/acrebypark07fy.pdf. Includes only NPS lands with fee simple NPS ownership.
U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Annual Report of Lands Under control of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife
Service, as of September 30, 2006, at http://www.fws/gov/realty/pdf_files/ 2006LandsReport.pdf, pp. 10-11.
Includes only federal lands with FWS primary jurisdiction.
U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Public Land Statistics, 2006, at http://www.blm.gov/style/
medialib/blm/wo/Business_and_Fiscal_Resources/2006_pls.Par.93605.File.dat/ Part_1C.pdf, Table 1-4.
U.S. General Services Administration, Federal Real Property Profile, as of September 30, 2004, at
n11_0Z5RDZ-i34K-pR.pdf, Table 16, pp. 18-19.
a. Includes Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington,
b. Includes the other 38 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Guam, and other insular
c. “Other Federal” was calculated by CRS as the difference between total federal land, as reported by the U.S.
General Services Administration (GSA), and the federal land administered by the four major federal land
management agencies (NPS + FWS + BLM + FS).
Ross W. Gorte Carol Hardy Vincent
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy Specialist in Natural Resources Policy
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