Department of Interior

Recommendations and Actions

DOI06: Rationalize Federal Land Ownership


The public lands of the United States have played a major role in the settlement and the development of the country. During most of the 19th century, national policy promoted disposal of public domain lands to stimulate settlement of the West. From 1812 to 1935, more than one billion acres of land were transferred to individuals and organizations through land sales, homesteading, and grants to railroads.[Endnote 1] In the late 1890s, the federal government began to set aside lands for specific purposes such as national forests, parks, military reservations, and wildlife refuges. The remaining public domain lands were managed by the Department of the Interior (DOI).

As a result of these activities and other uncoordinated land actions, federal lands managed by DOI's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Department of Agriculture's Forest Service (USFS) often lie side by side or are intermingled in many areas. This dispersed ownership pattern prevents efficient operations and results in fragmented assistance to customers. In many cases, the lands administered by the two agencies share the same users, resources, and management problems. The agencies maintain two separate staffs in more than 70 communities, resulting in inefficient use of federal resources and overall confusion to land users. [Endnote 2] Regardless of ownership, the goal for federal land management agencies is to provide responsible land management which protects and enhances the resource, protects the environment, and provides efficient and effective service to the public.

Since the 1930s, there have been a number of proposals to merge the functions of various the Interior and Agriculture Department organizations. A key element of all proposals was to merge the lands and resource responsibilities of USFS and BLM (or its predecessors). Because of consistent opposition to merger proposals in the early 1980s, attention was directed to realigning ownership patterns between USFS and BLM. In 1980, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior outlined a plan to identify lands where transfer between BLM and USFS had the potential to increase efficiency and effectiveness. An example of this problem is the Sawtooth National Forest near Pocatello, Idaho, where many small USFS land parcels are surrounded by BLM lands. Both agencies have personnel and offices in Pocatello, providing redundant land management assistance under different agency policies.

In August 1983, the President's Private Sector Survey on Cost Control in the Federal Government (the Grace Commission) recommended that BLM and USFS implement a land interchange designed to consolidate ownership patterns in geographic areas. In December 1984, the General Accounting Office reported that by combining offices and consolidating land patterns the government could achieve cost savings and great improvement in management efficiency and service to the public.

In January 1985, BLM and USFS announced a land exchange proposal to transfer 24 million acres of land between BLM and USFS. The agencies prepared a Legislative Environmental Impact Statement and met with congressional delegations, governors, and hundreds of key public groups and individuals in more than 600 documented consultations and individual sessions. During the review stage, 85 public meetings were held across the country.[Endnote 3] Due to concerns of potential reduction in revenues to counties and states and environmental and social impacts, the proposed actions were eventually blocked in the U.S. Senate.

Current regulations permit ownership to be realigned though land exchanges. BLM is the primary agency within DOI that uses land exchanges to acquire lands. Sections 205 and 206 of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act as amended by the Federal Land Exchange Facilitation Act provide the primary authority to process land exchanges. BLM typically exchanges 250,000 acres annually with other federal and state agencies. This process is very cumbersome and current policies and procedures prevent efficient exchanges. It often requires three years or more to complete a land exchange.

Land tenure adjustments through exchange or new management arrangements are now more important than ever. To focus on ecosystem management and maintain the biological diversity of public lands, the existing, virtually unmanageable checkerboard land ownership pattern must be consolidated through cooperative management or exchanging scattered and isolated public lands with intermingled parcels of private land. Experience shows that vast federal land transfers or exchanges are difficult to accomplish due to impacts on authorized programs, economic concerns from state and local government, and public perception that the changes will have a negative impact. Much political controversy usually accompanies proposed federal land changes. A method is needed to reflect the impact on small areas before implementing a land exchange proposal nationally.

The difficulty of successfully implementing land transfers is that BLM and USFS must consider alternative ways to improve federal operations. Cooperative land management and improved land exchange procedures among the agencies would provide a means of improving land management based on ecosystems principles. It also would improve agency efficiency and customer service through simplified rules and policies.


1. DOI should establish trial pilot coordinated management areas, preferably watershed based.

The department should develop a coordinated management plan on a ecosystem basis for each selected area. Each plan should include all federal land management agencies and state and local governments within the designated area. The pilots should begin operation early in calendar year 1994 and operate for up to 24 months.

Different concepts should be addressed in various pilots. One would be in an area where there already is ongoing work to forge ecosystem-based management approaches and include all federal agencies with land and resource management responsibilities in the area. Another should be a new effort focusing on BLM and USFS. In addition to addressing cooperative ecosystem-based management, it should include shared public service, administrative, and program activities. This should be an opportunity to reengineer BLM and USFS and other public service activities to develop single processes used by both agencies. The third area should propose changes in regulations to accelerate current exchange activities. If required, a waiver of regulations or procedures to improve land patterns and management capability should be requested.

Current authorities for land transfers requiring possible waivers include provisions of the Bankhead- Jones Act, the Withdrawal (Sec 204) and Exchange (Sec 206) provisions of the Federal Land Management and Policy Act, and other exchange provisions codified in 43 CFR 2200. Limited administrative actions such as detailing employees can be taken under the Economy Act of 1932. DOI can also explore other opportunities for policy changes. A fourth area should address the use of limited jurisdictional transfers. An example might be a state such as Nevada with large federal ownership.

2. After the pilot projects have been operating for 18-24 months, DOI should evaluate their progress to determine if legislative proposals to transfer lands between USFS and BLM on an agencywide or limited jurisdiction are required.


The pilot projects would provide the method for determining the success of cooperative land management. The pilots would show if it is possible to provide consistent ecosystem land management, foster inter-bureau and inter-department cooperation, develop consistent policies, and improve efficiency and effectiveness in land management. It would provide for shared service to the public and recommend changes to current exchange regulations. It is anticipated that legislation would be required to implement some of the changes.


Implementation of the proposal would be budget neutral. To implement the pilot projects, priority would be established by the agencies and needed personnel would be assigned from existing staff. Estimated needs will require reassignment of two full-time equivalents per pilot project and two support personnel.

It is anticipated the long-term impacts would result in gained efficiencies through improved procedures and regulations. Starting in fiscal year 1996, benefits are estimated to provide savings of about $6 million annually (the same as those reflected in the Intermingled Lands Alternative presented in the 1986 Legislative Environmental Impact Statement). This would provide the support for needed legislative change. Any savings resulting from the pilots and more efficient operations should be permitted to remain in the agency for land management.


1. U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management/Forest Service Interchange, National Summary and Legislative Proposal (Washington, D.C., February 1986), p. 3.

2. Ibid.

3. See U.S. Departments of the Interior and Agriculture, Legislative Environmental Impact Statement for the Bureau of Land Management-Forest Service Interchange (Washington, D.C., February 1986).

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