Power  /  Explainer

The Land Was Ours

Trump, Biden, and public lands.

The history of American public land management is largely one of privatization. The Interior Department was founded in 1849 and was instrumental in surveying and distributing colonized land as settlers pushed across the Great Plains and into the Western U.S. This process was codified by the Homestead Act of 1862. In practice, the law facilitated a massive transfer of wealth into private hands; the Interior Department provided more than 245 million acres of expropriated Indigenous land to farmers and ranchers. “‘Public land’ for ‘public good’ was a highly subsidized federal endeavor for private enterprise, racial exclusion and Indigenous elimination,” writes Nick Estes, a member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and an American studies professor at the University of New Mexico, in Our History is the Future, a recent account of the resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline at Standing Rock. Today, according to Estes, a quarter of U.S. adults are descendants of direct beneficiaries of the Homestead Act. The General Mining Act of 1872 was another tool of settlement by privatization. The law was blunt: simply finding a deposit of valuable minerals established the right to dig a mine — finders keepers, in other words. The land could then be “patented,” or signed over to private ownership for, at most, $5 per acre. There’s been a moratorium on patenting since 1994, but substantial aspects of the 1872 law are still in force today, giving private companies extreme influence over federal resource decisions. Companies that mine hardrock minerals — the most valuable metals, including gold, silver, copper, and lithium — pay no taxes on their estimated hundreds of billions of dollars in profits, and haven’t for more than a century. Until the 1970s, mining companies were not even required to clean up their operations once the minerals had been extracted, leaving the public on the hook for tens of billions of dollars in reclamation costs. Every day, a 2019 Associated Press investigation found, more than 50 million gallons of toxic water leaks out of abandoned mineral mines.

There’s a long-running joke that the acronym “BLM” stands for the “Bureau of Livestock and Mining.” Created in 1946 to regulate Western rangelands, which were being overgrazed by cattle companies, the BLM did not do much regulating at first, instead shuffling off duties to local grazing advisory boards. Change came in the 1970s, with the rise of the modern environmental movement. Congress passed several landmark laws: the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. These laws codified a new environmental consciousness and social understanding of public land as a public trust that ought to serve the common good, thus moderating the influence of extraction industries.