The Question Never Asked about Federal Lands

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The Government Accountability Office (GAO), known as the Government Accounting Office until 2004, “is an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress.” It is headed by the Comptroller General of the United States. The GAO likes to be called the “congressional watchdog” because it “examines how taxpayer dollars are spent and provides Congress and federal agencies with objective, reliable information to help the government save money and work more efficiently.”

Note that the GAO does not question the constitutionality, legitimacy, or necessity of the programs and agencies created by Congress that taxpayer dollars are spent on. It just seeks to make them run more efficiently.

The GAO “provides Congress, the heads of executive agencies, and the public with timely, fact-based, non-partisan information that can be used to improve government and save taxpayers billions of dollars.” Its work “is done at the request of congressional committees or subcommittees or is statutorily required by public laws or committee reports, per our Congressional Protocols.” The GAO “maintains the FraudNet hotline to support accountability across the federal government.” Citizens who suspect “fraud, waste, abuse, or mismanagement of federal funds” can report it to the GAO, which will refer the allegations “to federal, state, or local agencies or departments, as appropriate.”

Again, I note that the GAO does not question the constitutionality, legitimacy, or necessity of the programs and agencies created by Congress that taxpayer dollars are spent on. It just seeks to improve them by rooting out fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement.

The GAO prepares about 900 reports every year. A recent report is titled Mining on Federal Lands: More Than 800 Operations Authorized to Mine and Total Mineral Production Is Unknown. It was requested by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.).

It turns out that the federal government doesn’t know how much gold, silver, and copper is being mined on federal lands. As of Sept. 30, 2018, there were 872 authorized mines on federal lands, 728 of which fell into the “locatable hardrock mineral” category. The GAO found that “the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service do not keep track of how many minerals are extracted under ‘locatable hardrock mine operations’ because companies that operate these mines do not need to pay royalties to the federal government.”

“Federal agencies do not generally collect data on the quantity of minerals extracted from locatable hardrock mine operations — which account for 83 percent of the total number of mine operations authorized to produce minerals on federal lands,” the GAO report said.

Grijalva has been “critical of an 1872 mining law that makes it so these operators do not need to pay royalties.” “Mining on American public lands today means taking from the people without paying for it, polluting public property without cleaning up after yourself, and lobbying against any attempt to tell the public what you’re taking or what it’s worth,” said Grijalva. “The free ride needs to end. Let’s close these loopholes and start getting a fair return for the valuable resources mining corporations are taking from the American people.”

Maintenance fees collected by the government from the above mining claims amounted to only $68 million in 2019. However, about $550 million in fees was paid to the federal government from other types of mines. The GAO report “found that 290 million tons of coal, about 11.6 million tons of non-energy solid minerals like sodium and phosphate and 143,000 tons of gold, silver and copper for a separate type of mine were extracted from public lands in fiscal year 2018.”

The most important question about federal lands was never answered by the GAO because it was never asked by Grijalva or any other member of Congress.

Why does the federal government own so much land?

The BLM is part of the Department of the Interior (DOI), which was established in 1849. The DOI “conserves and manages the Nation’s natural resources and cultural heritage for the benefit and enjoyment of the American people, provides scientific and other information about natural resources and natural hazards to address societal challenges and create opportunities for the American people, and honors the Nation’s trust responsibilities or special commitments to American Indians, Alaska Natives, and affiliated island communities to help them prosper.”

In addition to the BLM, the DOI oversees other agencies such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey. It has 70,000 employees and 2,400 operating locations with a budget for fiscal year 2021 of $12.8 billion.

The DOI “manages the Nation’s public lands and minerals, including providing access to more than 480 million acres of public lands, 700 million acres of subsurface minerals, and 1.7 billion acres of the Outer Continental Shelf.” It “is the steward of 20 percent of the Nation’s lands, including national parks, national wildlife refuges, and other public lands; manages resources that supply 30 percent of the Nation’s energy; supplies and manages water in the 17 Western States and supplies 15 percent of the Nation’s hydropower energy.”

Just how much land does the federal government actually own?

According to latest update to the Congressional Research Service report Federal Land Ownership: Overview and Data,

The federal government owns roughly 640 million acres, about 28% of the 2.27 billion acres of land in the United States.

The amount and percentage of federally owned land in each state vary widely, ranging from 0.3% of land (in Connecticut and Iowa) to 80.1% of land (in Nevada). However, federal land ownership is concentrated in Alaska (60.9%) and 11 coterminous western states (45.9%), in contrast with lands in the other states (4.1%).


Why should the federal government own more than a third of the land in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming?

The only land that the federal government ought to own is in the District of Columbia and in some states for courthouses and military bases. There should be no federal buildings in any state for any other purpose.

And regardless of how much land the federal government owns, there is no constitutional authority for it to have anything to do with mining and minerals, fish and wildlife, power generation, parks, wildlife refuges, forests, hydroelectric power, or national resources.

All federal land in the fifty states that is not being used for courthouses and military bases should be sold to the states, to developers, to conservationists, to environmentalists, or to commercial interests.

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