The federal government owns roughly 635 million acres, heavily concentrated in 12 western states. Four agencies—the National Park Service (NPS), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and Bureau of Land Management (BLM), in the Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service (FS) in the Department of Agriculture—administer about 95% of those lands.
The extent to which these four federal agencies have authority to acquire and dispose of land varies considerably. The BLM has relatively broad authority for both acquisitions and disposals under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. The agency has other authorities for disposing of land, including a law that allows transfers to governmental units and other entities for public purposes. By contrast, the NPS has no general authority to acquire land to create new park units or to dispose of park lands. The FS authority to acquire lands is mostly limited to lands within or contiguous to the boundaries of a national forest. The agency has various authorities to dispose of land, but they are relatively constrained and infrequently used. The FWS has various authorities to acquire lands, but no general authority to dispose of its lands. The agency frequently uses acquisition authority under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1929, because of the availability of funding through the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund.
Congress also enacts legislation authorizing and governing the acquisition or disposal of particular lands. In some cases this is to provide authority where no standing authority exists, while in other cases it is to direct or facilitate land transactions.
The nature of the acquisition and disposal authorities of the four federal agencies also varies. In general, the acquisition authorities are designed to allow the four agencies to bring into federal ownership lands that many contend could benefit from federal management. Disposal authorities generally are designed to allow agencies to convey land that is no longer needed for a federal purpose or that might be chiefly valuable for another purpose. Some of the authorities specify particular circumstances where they can be used, such as the conveyance of FS land for educational purposes.
Congress often faces questions on the adequacy of existing acquisition and disposal authorities the nature, extent, and location of their use; and the extent of federal land ownership overall. The current acquisition and disposal authorities form the backdrop for consideration of measures to establish, modify, or eliminate authorities, or to provide for the acquisition or disposal of particular lands. Congress also addresses acquisition and disposal policy in the context of debates on the role and goals of the federal government in owning and managing land generally, and has considered broader measures to dispose of lands or to promote acquisition.
Other issues for Congress pertain to the sources and adequacy of funds for land acquisition. The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is the primary source of funding for land acquisition. The FWS also has the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, an account with mandatory spending authorities supported by revenue from three sources. The BLM has authority allowing the proceeds from certain land sales to be used for acquisition and other purposes, although a more general authority of this nature has expired. Congress has considered legislation to increase LWCF funding and make it permanent, as well as to decrease federal land holdings to direct funding from land acquisition to facility maintenance.