public land

public land, in U.S. history, land owned by the federal government but not reserved for any special purpose, e.g., for a park or a military reservation. Public land is also called land in the public domain. Except in Texas, which made retention of its public lands one of the conditions for joining the Union, there are no state public lands. Seven of the original states ceded their western lands to the federal government when they entered the Union. Additional public land was acquired with the Louisiana Purchase (1803), Florida (1819), Oregon (1846), the Mexican Cession (1848), the Gadsden Purchase (1853), and Alaska (1867). Almost as soon as public land was acquired the federal government began to dispose of it through grants to states, railroad companies, settlers (see Homestead Act, 1862), colleges (see land-grant colleges and universities), and cash sales. It was charged that large companies frequently acquired extensive holdings by dishonest means, and many of the new owners obtained considerable revenue by selling the land. A reaction to this easy policy set in toward the end of the 19th cent., and steps were taken to ensure the conservation of natural resources by withdrawing public lands from sale. Thereafter the government leased such land for grazing, lumbering, mining, the harnessing of water power, and other purposes, while maintaining regulatory control. By the 1970s there was considerable controversy over the need to make the best use of the public land's valuable resources while still preserving the land for future use and expanded recreational activities. Most of the nation's remaining public land is in the western part of the country, about half of it in Alaska.

See E. L. Peffer, The Closing of the Public Domain (1951, repr. 1972); W. C. Calef, Private Grazing and Public Lands (1960); V. Carstensen, ed., The Public Lands (1962); P. Gates, History of Public Land Law Development (1968); M. J. Rohrbough, The Land Office Business (1968).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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