A Brief History of Public Lands

Native lands first

Thousands of years ago, Native people lived throughout what are now America’s public lands,  and the Northern Paiute people lived in almost every region of Oregon’s high desert. These lands are filled with signs of the people who inhabited them, such as rock art, artifacts, and structures left behind.

A violent past

American public lands originated during the settlement of the western United States during the 19th century.

When the nation was expanding under President Thomas Jefferson, massive tracts of land were acquired through the Louisiana Purchase, and even more land was seized by the government from Native Americans tribes through war and later, through broken treaties.

Westward expansion

At first, the government gave away land to encourage settlement of the West. Congress passed a number of laws to dispose land, including the Homestead Act of 1862, which allowed each head of household to acquire 160 acres for free. Land containing water and fertile ground was the first to be claimed. Land that was not claimed remained in the public domain and was administered by the General Land office, which later became the Bureau of Land Management.

Preserving land for the people

As concerns about the impacts of development grew, and illegal land use by corporations expanded, a new idea emerged. A number of leaders including President Theodore Roosevelt, naturalist John Muir, and Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, began to advocate for some of the lands in the public domain to be set aside for the use and enjoyment of all people.

This uniquely American idea is the foundation of our public lands today.

Establishing agencies and policies

A new era of public lands management began with the founding of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905, the National Park Service in 1916, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1940, and finally the Bureau of Land Management in 1946. Today, these four agencies manage a total of 646 million acres of land, nearly half of our country, that is owned by all Americans.

While extractive uses like logging and grazing were originally the primary mandate for the use of our shared public lands, the preservation of land and resources for the enjoyment of all people was included in the founding missions of all four land management agencies. This set up a dynamic where federal agencies are charged with balancing the interests of conservation and resource development proponents, sparking the passage of a number of laws in the 20th century aimed at fostering the long-term use and enjoyment of land by the American people, and later, the ability for the public to have a say in how our lands are managed.