We bet that many avid campers would guess most federally-owned land lies in the western United States. And you’d be right!
But who exactly owns those lands, and which states should you head to for the most boondocking opportunities?
We’ve got details for you about the ten states with the most federally-owned land.
Let’s dig in!
What Is Federally Owned Land?
Federally-owned land belongs to the US government rather than states, counties, or cities. As the government looked to expand west, it either took or bought land from the Native peoples or other countries.
Once the government realized they needed to produce revenue, they began to sell land to settlers. States and private owners obtained land through homesteading and land grants.
This strategy worked well east of the Mississippi, where the government now only owns 4% of the land. On the other hand, it still owns 47% in the West.
A combination of geography and politics slowed down the disposal process of land. Arid, mountainous, and difficult-to-reach pieces of land made it difficult to farm. The tracts of land available through the grants were too small for ranching or herding.
#10 New Mexico
New Mexico is the fifth-largest state in the US, but one of the least populated. Of its 77.8 million acres, 24.7 million are federally-owned land of which the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages 54.7%.
Before Spanish explorers and settlers arrived in the region, it was home to Pueblo, Mogollon, Comanche, and Ute tribes. Today, you’ll mostly find Pueblo, Apache, and Diné people in New Mexico.
As with many other states in the western US, it became part of our country through the Mexican-American War in 1848.
New Mexico isn’t all desert as some think. Grasslands, mountains, and mesas cover the Land of Enchantment. In fact, most of the state lies 4,000 feet above sea level.
Federally-owned land accounts for 36.2% of Colorado’s overall size, increasing 2.2% since 1990. Of the 24.1 million acres, the US Forest Service (FS) manages 60.1%, and 34.7% is BLM land.
Native Americans have made Colorado their home for over 13,000 years. At one time, the Ute, Apache, Comanche, Arapaho, and Cheyenne Nations all lived here. Now, this land of glorious mountain ranges, lush forests, and winding rivers is mainly home to the Ute tribes.
By 1803, the US and Spain had entered into a conflict over the region. The Centennial State became a part of the US due to the Mexican-American War victory but wasn’t officially a state until 1876.
Southern Arizona experiences hot summers and mild winters, while northern Arizona experiences mild summers and significant winter snowfalls.
With a desert to the south and mountain ranges and gorges to the north, it’s understandable why the government still owns 38.6% of the land. The BLM and FS mainly manage most of the 28.1 million federally-owned parcels.
Arizona’s population has grown since the 1950s due to migration from other areas of the US and Central America. One-quarter of the state consists of Native American reservations that are home to 27 recognized tribes, including the Diné, Tohono O’odham, Havasupai, and Hopi.
As the third-largest state in the US, California is also the most populated. The federal government owns 45.4% of the state (45.5 million acres). The US Forest Service and BLM manage most of the federally-owned land.
Before European colonization, The Golden State contained the highest population of Native Americans – and still does. The state has over 100 different tribes, including the Pomo and Yurok.
After the Mexican-American War, California became part of the US in 1848 and gained its statehood in 1850.
The geography varies from the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the east. The climate ranges from the temperate rainforest in the north to desert conditions in central California.
Home to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, federal land ownership in Wyoming protects some of our best natural resources.
The US government owns 46.7%, or 29.1 million acres, of The Equality State, with the BLM managing most of it.
Wyoming is the United States’ least-populated state, but tourists visit year-round. The Rocky Mountains are to the west, and the high plains are to the east. It’s drier and windier than other states, producing greater temperature extremes.
It has been home to the Crow, Lakota, Shoshone, and Arapaho tribes for thousands of years.
Oregon is the ninth largest state in the US, and the government owns 52.3% or 32.2 million acres there. The BLM and FS each handle about half of the total federally-owned lands.
Europeans began settling in the area now known as Oregon in the 16th century. The region became a US territory in 1848 and a state in 1859.
The Beaver State is geologically diverse with volcanos, mountains, dense forests, and abundant bodies of water. But it also has high deserts and semi-arid shrublands. Climates vary across the region, from oceanic in the west to a subarctic climate in the northeast.
It’s stunning to read that the federal government owns 222.7 million acres in Alaska! This is by far the most considerable amount of land they own.
And yet it’s still only 60.9% of the total acreage in The Last Frontier. The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and BLM manage a similar amount of land, about ⅔ of the federally-owned land. To give context to the size of Alaska, it’s twice as big as Texas or ⅕ of the continental US.
Home to indigenous peoples for thousands of years, it was first colonized by Russians in the 18th century. In 1867, Russia sold the land to the United States for two cents per acre, what is now equal to $140 million.)
Alaska contains more than three million lakes. In addition, marshlands, wetlands, and glacial ice cover over 217 thousand square miles making it almost impossible to farm. So owning large tracts of land there isn’t high on everyone’s list.
The United States Government owns 61.9% of Idaho, or 32.8 million acres. Mountain Ranges and steep canyons fill The Gem State. Believe it or not, the Snake River runs through the deepest gorge in the US, and Shoshone Falls drop from cliffs higher than Niagara Falls.
The FS holds about ⅔ of the federally-owned land. Of this, about 2.3 million acres are the largest contiguous area of protected wilderness in the US. Land in Idaho with a wilderness designation is off-limits to timber harvesting and mining.
According to archaeological evidence found in 1959, Native Americans may have lived in the area some 14,500 years ago. The Nez Percé and Shoshone called Idaho home long before European settlers discovered the area.
The United States gained jurisdiction over the Idaho region in 1846, and it became a state in 1890.
Of the 52.7 million acres that make up Utah, the federal government owns 63.1% or 33.3 million acres. The BLM owns nearly 70% of that federally-owned land.
Indigenous peoples such as the ancient Puebloans, Ute, and Diné once inhabited Utah. Today, you’ll mainly find Ute, Dine, Paiute, Goshute, and Shoshone tribes living there.
Like Nevada, Utah became a part of the US after the Mexican-American War.
Known for its natural diversity, Utah has features ranging from pine forests in mountain valleys and arid deserts with sand dunes. It’s a very rugged state, which may account for the population of only about three million people.
The Rocky Mountains, the Colorado Plateau, and the Great Basin are distinct geological regions that define Utah.
Nevada was home to the Paiute, Mohave, Shoshone, and Washoe Native American tribes long before becoming a state in 1862. The US obtained the land that would become Nevada as a result of its victory in the Mexican-American War.
The federal government owns a whopping 80.1% of the state of Nevada, 56.2 million acres.
The BLM maintains over 84% or approximately 47 million acres of that and several other agencies manage the remainder. The DOD holds the least acreage with only 0.1% of the federally-owned land. The Silver State also contains 68 wilderness areas under the jurisdiction of NPS, BLM, and the FS.
Nevada is the driest state, with droughts increasing in frequency and severity. The Las Vegas Valley is the exception to the mostly desert and semi-arid climates.
The Western US Wins With the Most Federally Owned Land
Overall, the US government owns 615.3 million acres of our country. It would take a lifetime to visit it all, but it would be worth the journey!
How many federally-owned areas have you visited, and which are your favorite locations? Let us know in the comments!
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