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Land Ownership & Use in the US: Private vs. Federal

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  • 0:07 Land Area of the US
  • 1:03 Federally-Owned Land
  • 3:21 Privately-Owned Land
  • 5:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rebecca Gillaspy

Dr. Gillaspy has taught health science at University of Phoenix and Ashford University and has a degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic.

Land in the United States can be owned by the federal government or by private citizens. Learn more about federally-owned land and privately-owned land and how each type of land is used.

Land Area of the United States

I have a question for you: if I told you there were 2,271,343,000 of these in the United States, what would you guess I was referring to?

multiple choice example question

If you guessed (A) people, I'm afraid that's incorrect. At the start of the year 2013, the estimated population of the U.S. was just over 315 million people. If you chose (B) vehicles or (D) types of insects, I'm sorry, but those answers were also incorrect. The correct answer is (C) acres. The total land area of the United States of America is just shy of 2.3 billion acres. That's a lot of land, and in this lesson we are going to explore just who owns that land and what it is used for.

Federally-Owned Land

In the United States, land that is owned or administered by the federal government is referred to as federally-owned land. The federal government owns and manages about one-third of the total U.S. territory. Much of this federal land is in the West as seen on the map below.

Most of the federally-owned land is in the western United States.
map of federally owned land

It is interesting to note that more than 50% of the land area for some western states, such as Nevada, Alaska, Utah, Oregon and Idaho is owned by the federal government.

Now, even though the land is owned by the government, much of it can still be used by the citizens of America. One of the public uses of federally-owned land is for national parks. Unlike cities or other highly populated areas, national parks are lands protected from development and open to visitors from around the world. One favorite destination for tourists is Yellowstone National Park, located mainly in the western state of Wyoming, with some parts of the park extending into Montana and Idaho. This park is the home of Old Faithful, which is one of the many geysers within the park that sends column of hot water and steam into the air. These geysers are one of the reasons Yellowstone was declared as America's first national park back in 1872.

Federal land is also used as wildlife refuges, which are public lands and waters set aside to conserve and protect fish, wildlife and plants. Wildlife refuges protect about 150 million acres of land and water in the United States. Other federal lands are used as military reservations, federal prisons, Indian reservations or leased to companies or corporations for commercial exploitation, including agriculture, forestry and mining. Because this land is owned by the federal government, the proper care of the land falls on the shoulders of the Department of the Interior, which is the federal agency that manages and conserves most federally-owned land.

Privately-Owned Land

Land that is not owned by the federal government may be owned by state or local governments, but much of the remaining land is privately-owned land. Privately-owned land is defined as land owned by an individual or group that is kept for their exclusive use. Privately-owned land is where many Americans live. Now, the amount of acres one owns is not limited, and there are some individuals and families that own millions of acres of U.S. land. This is in contrast to the majority of individuals who own smaller plots of land or live in urban areas. In fact, according to Eric O'Keefe, editor of The Land Report magazine, about 80% of U.S. citizens live on just 3% of the land, with cities and suburbs providing the most housing.

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