Just How Much Land Does the Federal Government Own — and Why?

The rough beauty of the American West seems as far as you can get from the polished corridors of power in Washington DC.

Just How Much Land Does the Federal Government Own — and Why?

The rough beauty of the American West seems as far as you can get from the polished corridors of power in Washington DC. Until you look at the title to the land. The federal government owns large tracts of the western states: from a low of 29.9% in Montana, already more than the national average, up to a whopping 84.5% in Nevada.


This map, depicting the distribution and share of federal land per state, was first published on this blog way back in 2008. Nevertheless, it keeps accumulating comments and hits at a steady pace, and is still frequently shared around. Unlike hundreds of other random maps, this one has become a perennial. That raises an interesting question for map geeks like yours truly: Which nerve, exactly, does this map strike with the Great Online Public? 

Let's start with the most obvious answer: the map is stunningly effective at bringing home its message. And that message is: Federal land ownership out west is huge.

Few minds will stir when they learn that the US federal government owns a grand total of 640 million acres of land: that figure is so vast that it becomes meaningless [1]. The sum of all that acreage adds up to about 28% of the nation's total surface, 2.27 billion acres. That sounds like a lot, but since it is an average, and because we have nothing to compare it to, that percentage is, to use one of my favorite quotes, “the kind of information they conceal in books” [2].

Both issues – the blandness of averages, the lack of comparison – are eliminated by the map, which presents an immediate, jaw-droppingly clear frame of reference. In the blink of an eye, the contrast between the west and the rest becomes clear.

The clever device delivering that instant insight: 50 icons, each shaped like the particular state they are centered on and sized to reflect the percentage of the federal lands in each particular state.

Back east, but even in the Midwest, those icons – colored red for better contrast – barely amount to a distant mirror of the state they're modelled on. In those parts, the federal share of state territory rarely runs into the double digits. It even stays below 2% for the Top 10 states with the lowest percentage of federally owned land:

The largest splotches of red are all in the 11 westernmost states of the Lower 48. The federal government's enormous share of Alaska is only less obvious because as usual the largest state in the Union is shown in an inset map, at a much larger scale [3].

These red icons look like parasites, about to take over the body of the host. Take a look at poor Nevada, where non-public land is pushed out to a narrow band skirting the state's borders – marginalized, in the most literal sense of the word. Even in most other western states, that ledge is not much wider than a toehold.

The Top 10 list of states with the highest percentage of federally owned land on this map looks like this: 

Both because of its enormous total size and its huge percentage of federal lands, Alaska alone represents almost half the government-owned area in the 10 most 'federalised' states combined. The only two western states falling out of the Top 10 are Montana (29.9%) and Washington state (30.3%).

What is all that federal land for? And exactly who is in charge? According to the Congressional Research Service [4], a total area of just under 610 million acres – more than twice the size of Namibia – is administered by no more than 4 federal government agencies:

* The United States Forest Service (USFS), which oversees timber harvesting, recreation, wildlife habitat protection and other sustainable uses on a total of 193 million acres – almost the size of Turkey – mainly designated as National Forests.

* The National Park Service (NPS) conserves lands and resources on 80 million acres – a Norway-sized area – in order to preserve them for the public. Any harvesting or resource removal is generally prohibited.

* the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), managing 248 million acres [5] – an area the size of Egypt – has a multiple-use, sustained-yield mandate, supporting energy development, recreation, grazing, conservation, and other uses.

* the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) manages 89 million acres – an area slightly bigger than Germany – to conserve and protect animal and plant species.

The first agency is part of the Department of Agriculture, the latter three of the Department of the Interior. The Department of Defense manages an additional 20 million acres – a bit larger than the Czech Republic – as military bases, testing and training grounds, etc.

Back to the map – apart from making its point in such an excellent manner, why is it so popular? The aforementioned Congressional Overview of Federal Land Ownership provides a broad outline of the answer:

“47% of the 11 coterminous western states [is federally owned]. By contrast, the federal government owns only 4% in the other states. This western concentration has contributed to a higher degree of controversy over land ownership and use in that part of the country”.

“Throughout America’s history, federal land laws have reflected two visions: keeping some lands in federal ownership while disposing of others. From the earliest days, there has been conflict between these two visions. During the 19th century, many laws encouraged settlement of the West through federal land disposal. Mostly in the 20th century, emphasis shifted to retention of federal lands.”

That conflict came to a head very publicly last year with the case of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher whose conflict with the Bureau of Land Management over grazing rights led to the federal government impounding his cattle [6].

But the federal government's extra-extra-large involvement in the management of western lands is far more than a conflict about grazing, water, mining, logging and other development. It pits the principle of good stewardship of the land, for the welfare of present and future generations, against one of America's foundational axioms: That government is best which governs least [7].

The former attitude requires a central government to assume authority, restrict access, punish rule-breakers – and increasingly so, since resource depletion is a growing threat.

The latter viewpoint holds government intervention to be the problem, not the solution, and the stated reasons for it – be it conservation or climate change – as convenient cover stories at best.

Two quotes from the story's comments section illustrate the gap between the two extremes:

“It's too late [to take back our country]. Jump ship and buy land in a poor undeveloped country, Start a farm and build a new community.”

“Or we could stop wasting time with this nonsense and get back to the real issues.” 

Ultimately, this map reverberates and keeps bouncing around the internet because it touches a divide in American politics and wider society that is about much more than land use. It pits libertarians versus federalists, with the gap between them increasing to such an extent that the former often seem to the latter to be no more than right-wing vigilantes, the latter to the former nothing less than world-government-promoting socialists. Until some middle ground emerges to bridge that divide, this map (and other incendiary devices) will continue to add fuel to the ideological fire.

Many thanks to Jonathan Leblang and Adam Hahn for signaling this map, which appeared as an illustration to ‘Can the West Lead Us To A Better Place?‘, an article in Stanford Magazine, a periodical for and about alumni from that university. Update: the map can be found in higher resolution – and with a long, long comments section – here on Reddit.

Strange Maps #291

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

[1] Remember the Joseph Stalin quote: “One death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic”. Not that one acre is a tragedy. But you catch our meaning. 

[2] Oliver Platt as Hector Cyr in Lake Placid (1999).

[3] Contrary to intuition, map objects shrunk to fit in with others are shown at a larger, not a smaller scale. See the scales at the bottom: Alaska's 500-mile line is 4 times shorter than the Lower 48's. Meaning (a) that Alaska is shown 4 times smaller than the Lower 48; and (b) that if Alaska's scale would have been as long as the other, it would have measured 2,000 miles – i.e. would measure a larger distance.

[4] Federal Land Ownership: Overview and Data

[5] The BLM is also responsible for subsurface mineral resources in areas totaling 700 million acres.

[6] The sentiment is often attributed to Jefferson, but the quote as such is from the opening lines of Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience

[7] Mr. Bundy refused to pay $1.2 million in grazing fees to the BLM, arguing that the land his cattle uses belongs not to the federal, but the state government. In the spring of last year, BLM officials agreed to leave his property and release his cattle after hundreds of armed supporters showed up at the Bundy ranch. As the Washington Post recently reported, the conflict remains unresolved.

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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
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