Land Ownership and Development in the West: The Conflict Over Federal Land Ownership

Conflicts over Federal ownership of land in the West is a good example of the contradiction between the social character of the land and its ownership and control. In the class readings for today, David Harvey discussed the problems arising from the uniqueness land as a commodity. That is by its fixed location, is inherently subject to externalities or external effects. In some communities, there have been calls for the federal government to relinquish the control over federal grazing lands to private control. In some recent cases, tensions between ranchers and park rangers have led to armed protestations. This property contradiction illustrates the oppositional issues with land ownership, production, management and use (Feinstein et al, 2016, pg. 110-112).

Can Planning solve this problem?

According to a New York Times article the United States federal government owns 47 percent of all land in the West. [1] In fact, the federal government owns half of the land in 11 western states. [2] The federal government through its agencies are the biggest landowners in some states. For instance, about 80 percent of land in Nevada is federally owned.

Drawing from Castell’s notion of “The Problem of Planning”, Federal land ownership seems to favor his argument for state responsibility to meet the consumption needs of the working class, to maintain capitalism; from the individual consumption through the market to collective consumption organized through the state. In this case, through the current d=federal ownership of land, multiple stakeholders, including rangers, hunters, miners, etc., can collectively participate in the consumption of resources.

However, the issue of federal ownership and management of these large tracts of forest and grazing lands continue to be a core problem and the cause of anti-government protesters in Oregon, Nevada, and New Mexico. The federal government seems to allow free use of unclaimed lands by rancher and others, and there have been skirmishes over the years. But there is an increasing local demand for the transfer of land rights to states and local governments.

[1] Why the Government Owns So Much Land in the West (Quoctrung Bui and Margot Sanger-Katz, Jan 5, 2016) (Feb. 26, 2018)

[2] The Massive, Empty Federal Lands of the American West (Andrew Mcgill, Jan 05, 2016) (Feb. 26, 2018)