The United States is a huge country and has more land than just about any nation in the world, but just how much of it does it actually own?
America owns approximately 2.27 billion acres of land within its 50 States. 640 million of this is managed by the government. However, the United States also has partial ownership of lands located overseas, which are classified as U.S. Territories.
Given that the United States has so much land inside and outside of its borders, finding the exact amount can be a little tricky. In addition, lands located within America fall under many different classifications of ownership, which creates a different idea of legitimate possession altogether. Finding the exact amount of land that falls under U.S. ownership will require analyzing all of its domestic and international properties, as well as understanding the different ways these parcels are labeled.
American lands are owned by private individuals and the United States Government. Unless the American lands are partially owned by an international country, they will likely be managed by a government organization such as the Bureau of Land Management and other various government agencies.
American Owned Lands
When we take a look at the geographical area of the United States, it’s quite clear that it is one of the largest nations on the planet, which makes it one of the wealthiest countries for land ownership.
The expansion of North America through the spread of colonization throughout the 1800s allowed America to develop into the prosperous nation that it is today. This is what led to the establishment of the 50 States, which are recognized as the primary basis for U.S. soil.
With that being said, land ownership can be a rather complex thing to analyze within America’s domestic borders. The reason for this is due to the varying land classifications that we have throughout our country, which can make determining official land ownership a bit more complicated.
In addition, land classifications have changed over time, as we have converted lands from different uses to perform specific functions. This generally occurs for the sake of protecting the environmental qualities of specific properties or simply to prevent mass privatization of public lands. To understand this better let’s dive into some of the different lands that are owned within the domestic United States and why they have their specific classifications.
Federal Owned Lands
The most land that America owns as an institution is run by the United States Federal Government.
This federal government has land that spreads across the entire nation and is not specific to any given state. With that being said the amount of land that it owns varies greatly depending on the location of the property and what its attributes are.
Since the United States Federal Government is supported entirely by collective taxpayer funding, most of the lands that they actually own fall under some form of public ownership. It’s important to note that while these lands are technically owned by the public at large, their accessibility to the public is determined by what their land use has been classified for.
We can see these classifications throughout the nation, as they are generally overseen by specific agencies that fall under the control and management of the federal government.
Here are the primary land types that are owned by the federal government.
Bureau of Land Management
The agency that manages more land for the United States Federal Government than any other agency is the Burea of Land Management. This government agency is responsible for overseeing approximately 245 million acres of land on U.S. soil, which amounts to over 10% of all American domestic property.
The Burea of Land Management was established in 1812 during the taming of the western United States as an effort to help organize incoming settlements. With that being said, the primary areas that you will see properties managed by this government agency will be located in states such as California, Alaska, Nevada, and New Mexico.
These lands do not generally get as much attention as other properties owned by the federal government, as they usually do not have a natural aesthetic that has been deemed worthy of environmental significance. What the Burea of Land Management often does with these properties is it utilizes them for natural resources, cattle grazing, and outdoor recreation.
However, it’s very common to see these lands in a state of complete desolation, as they may not have any qualities worthy of capitalizing on at all.
The United States Forest Service
Our nation has a lot of gorgeous landscapes that are teeming with natural forests, which make up for a large amount of land owned by the federal government. Unless the forested area has been privatized or established as a nature park, it’s likely that it’s managed by The United States Forest Service.
This government agency is responsible for overseeing 193 million acres of land within the domestic United States.
The primary function of the Forest Service is to protect and manage our nation’s natural resources such as timber and water. Unlike other government agencies that protect our environment, the Forest Service primarily protects these resources for the purpose of economic growth and prosperity. To accomplish this, the agency sets a sustainable level of resource harvesting to ensure that there is a balanced level of environmental reliance. This allows us to keep these resources intact for generations to come.
While the amount of land currently owned by The United States Forest Service is currently 193 million acres, this number is actually growing each year as the agency expands its reach.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
This government agency is responsible for managing roughly 856 million acres of American-owned land. While this number is significantly higher than the land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, in actuality, the majority of this is submerged lands and waters, which make up 760 million acres.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service owns properties within all 50 States and is responsible for protecting our nation’s wildlife, fish, and natural areas. The total amount of physical land owned by this agency is 95 million acres.
We can see land areas owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the following forms:
- Forests - to ensure the protection of forests through sustainable practices across the entire nation.
- Deserts - throughout most of the South West the agency manages plant and animal ecosystems in our deserts.
- Coastline - across all American coastlines USFW oversees habitats and ecosystems. In addition, they manage things such as flooding and storms.
- Wilderness Areas - throughout the United States the agency protects areas that have been classified as open wilderness for light conservation use.
- Wetlands - these areas are protected by the agency for habitats that are essential for local and migratory bird species.
- Rivers - many of our nation’s rivers are under strict protection to ensure freshwater channels stay healthy for public use and aquatic ecosystems.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for managing more land in Alaska than anywhere in the United States. Aside from doing conservation analysis of lands the agency owns, its additional role is to regulate human activities such as hunting and fishing by issuing licenses, which fall under strict rules.
National Park Service
Throughout the United States, we can find lots of federally owned lands that have been established as National Parks. These beautiful parks are littered throughout the country, are intended for public use, and are considered to be the pride and joy of the nation.
The National Park Service was established in the early 1900s and is currently responsible for overseeing 6 million acres in the United States. The agency currently manages 400 parks. However, the number of parks that exist, as well as the amount of land that the National Park Service owns is something that grows periodically, as more parks are established semi-regularly.
The land expansion of these parks occurs when conservationists locate properties through the United States that are deemed worthy of environmental protection and have exceedingly beautiful natural aesthetics.
While the amount of land that makes up the National Parks themselves is only 6 million acres, the total amount of land that the service oversees outside of the parks is upwards of 84 million acres, which makes up 3.5% of the land that the United States owns.
U.S. Department of Defense
The U.S. Department of Defense is the largest government agency that exists within the United States. While the amount of land this federal agency owns is only 8.8 million acres, its grasp and control over the nation are what classify it as the largest.
It’s important to note that the 8.8 million acres of land owned by the U.S. Department of Defense are only located within the continental United States. In actuality, the agency actually owns and oversees 30 million acres worldwide.
The reason for this is that the U.S. Department of Defense has military operations that span the entire globe. We can see the land owned being used for the following military services:
- U.S. Army
- U.S. Navy
- U.S. Marine Corp
- U.S. Air Force
Much like other federally owned government lands, the U.S. Department of Defense’s land ownership can vary greatly depending on the circumstances. There are certain areas that the agency is established in that are permanent lands and some that are temporary. This is usually dependant on whether there is a military conflict in the area that requires the attention of the United States.
In addition to the lands that the federal government owns, your local state also has a reasonable amount of property that it oversees. While the amount of land that states own is significantly lower, it still adds up to about 9% of all land within the United States, which is roughly 20 million acres of land.
Unlike the federal government, which owns the vast majority of its land on the west coast of the country, a much larger amount of land on the east coast is actually under the ownership of state governments.
Here are some examples of lands that are owned by your local state government.
The United States currently has more than 6,500 State Parks in the country.
These parks make up the majority of land that a state owns, which adds up to being roughly 14 million acres of land. Much like National Parks, State Parks can be found all over the country but can be more common in some states than others. The reason for this is that a State Park is usually established in an area that is worthy of environmental protection or has a natural beauty that the public aims to retain.
In addition to State Parks, the remainder of the lands that are owned by your state will likely be connected to local governments and certain facilities. The most common examples would be things like designated public parks, public libraries, and State Beaches.
Private Owned Lands
Despite the huge amount of land owned by the United States Federal Government, the vast majority of property in the country is still owned by private individuals and organizations.
In fact, private land makes up more than double the amount of land owned by the federal government! That means that private land is 60% of all land within the United States which amounts to a whopping 1.4 billion acres of land. It’s important to consider that although private individuals account for the majority of the land owned in the nation, how the land is divided has a lot to do with who owns it and how they use it.
Given that private individuals have the right to do just about anything with their land that they please, we can see a lot of dynamics with privately owned lands. A major aspect that contributes to this is the location of the land itself, as this tends to determine the amount of land most people will be able to acquire.
Let’s take a closer look at privately owned lands in the United States.
Residentially Owned Lands
Analyzing residential owned lands by private individuals can be tricky, as the lands that residences can be built on can vary greatly.
In a country as large as the United States, it is very common to see people develop homes in all sorts of locations that can be significantly larger than others. In addition, analyzing certain residential properties can be complex due to their intended use.
Unlike lands owned by the federal government, private individuals do not necessarily need to establish a classification for their property. This can lead to private individuals leaving their land to be classified under multiple types of uses.
To understand this better let’s dive into some of the residential properties that Americans own.
Rural Residentially Owned Lands
The most dynamic private residences owned by Americans are generally found in rural areas.
The reason for this is that rural lands tend to be more vast and are capable of being used for various things other than simply living. With that being said, it’s quite common for a landowner to establish a portion of their land as residential and leave the remainder to pursue a business venture or simply leave it untouched.
At the end of the day, rural residential lands owned by private individuals amount to 79 million acres of land.
Urban Residentially Owned Lands
Our urban cities are a bit easier to analyze, as their intended land use is much more specified.
The dense urban areas of the United States make up roughly 2% of all lands that private residence owners have, which is around 64 million acres of land.
This generally does not include small towns that have a relatively small population.
The United States is capable of producing an immense amount of food due to its large farmlands.
At the moment the amount of land America owns for the purpose of agricultural farming is 530,000 million acres. We have seen this number dramatically increase over the last century due to the rampant rise of industrial farming. Given that the United States has pioneered some groundbreaking ways of mass-producing food in a highly efficient way, the amount of land that we converted for farming skyrocketed.
With that being said, it’s important to consider that not all land that is directly used for farming is simply agricultural. Farming requires certain lands that are utilized for pasture and grazing livestock. These indirect farming lands make up an additional 530,000 million acres of land.
This means that the actual amount of land that is used for farming increases to over 1 billion acres. This number can be challenging to interpret as exclusively privately owned. The reason for this is that a lot of our farmlands fall under an interesting classification due to them being leased by the federal government.
It’s common practice for the government to give an extremely long lease to farmers for the purpose of food growing or establishing open-range lands. They are granted these leases, which are classified as private lands so long as the farmer adheres to the specific uses of the property.
Corporate Owned Land
It’s quite common to have corporations be a bridge between urban and rural developments, as they can be built in a wide variety of locations so long as their business model allows it.
The total amount of land owned by corporations and commercial businesses in the United States is currently 21 million acres. However, corporations are constantly expanding their growth and are buying up large parcels of land on a regular basis.
In addition, it’s also common for corporations to purchase lands that are not intended for a specific business purpose and are merely acquiring properties for the purpose of long-term investment.
A land classification that is becoming more popular to see around the United States in recent years is private properties that fall under a conservation easement. This occurs when private land undergoes an appraisal process that converts the property into land that is protected under certain environmental guidelines.
The primary reason this occurs is due to the private property having significant environmental qualities that are deemed worthy of protection for either endangered species, at-risk habitats, or the protection of natural resources such as vital freshwater channels.
It’s estimated that there are currently about 25 million acres of land that can be classified as private lands under conservation easements in the United States.
However, much like many conservation lands in the nation, these easements are becoming more common and continue to grow. This is generally done by a private landowner taking it upon themselves to protect the environmental qualities of their property or by a non-profit land trust that has similar intentions.
Native American Owned Lands
You will see certain areas of the United States that fall into the land ownership of Native Americans.
A lot of these lands have been returned to various Native American tribes. There are approximately 56 million acres of property in the country that belongs to any of the 300 reservations recognized.
These lands do, however, fall into an interesting classification as they are not fully owned by the Native Americans. In actuality, these lands are technically owned by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is a federal government organization. The federal government has granted private ownership to Native Americans of these lands in the form of a tribal trust.
There are roughly 44 million acres of land that is Native American-owned, which falls into this category. The remaining 11 million acres of Native American land is owned privately.
The United States has many international allies around the globe that it has made agreements with to allow a certain level of presence in the nation for either mutual economic benefit and/or strategic military incentive.
These areas are classified as U.S. Territories and fall under partial or full ownership of the United States Federal Government. However, some of these territories are actually their own countries with their own government and simply have very close ties to the United States.
At the moment, there are currently 14 official U.S. Territories around the world, which make up a total of 3,775 square miles and roughly 2.5 million acres of land.
The majority of these individual territories are found in the form of rather desolate islands located in the South Pacific Ocean for the purpose of military weapon testing and other military benefits. To understand the American ownership of U.S. Territories further, let’s examine each individual territory.
The largest U.S. Territory is Puerto Rico and is located in the Caribbean Sea.
This nation became a U.S. Territory in 1917 and later became a commonwealth of the United States in 1952 - and while it is not technically part of the 50 States, it is American-owned land. As the largest U.S. Territory, Puerto Rico has 3,151 square miles of land that is owned by the United States Federal Government.
Since becoming an American commonwealth, Puerto Rico has been one of our most trusted allies and has been granted special rights for immigrants aiming to claim citizenship in the United States.
U.S. Virgin Islands
The U.S. Virgin Islands were acquired by the United States in 1917 through a purchase from the nation of Denmark and are also located in the Caribean Sea.
These islands account for 136 square miles of U.S. Territory owned by America. The territory consists of 4 islands - St. John, St. Thomas, Water Island, and St. Croix.
In addition, there are about 50 other smaller islands that remain nameless located in the island chain of this U.S. Territory, which America also owns.
Northern Marina Islands
Located near Guam, the Northern Marina Islands are another prominent U.S. Territory which is an archipelago of 11 primary islands.
The Northern Marina Islands were acquired in 1947 as a result of the conflict the United States had with Japan during the Second World War.
This island archipelago is 184 square miles in size.
The South Pacific U.S. Territory of American Samoa is an island chain of 7 islands, which was acquired by the United States in the year 1900.
This territory is roughly 77 square miles of American-owned lands.
The full conversion of all 7 islands of this U.S. Territory was not completed until 1925.
This U.S. Territory accounts for 212 square miles of international land owned by America.
The primary function of this territory was to establish a strategic military point for the United States Government.
Additional U.S. Territories
The United States owns lands in the form of U.S. Territories, which are all primarily island nations in either the Caribbean Sea or the Pacific Ocean.
The majority of these territories operate semi-independently of the United States and have a relationship that aims to benefit both parties in some way. However, there are also a handful of U.S. Territories that have especially small populations or none at all.
Let’s take a look at some of the additional U.S. Territories that America owns.
- Navassa Island - you can find Navassa Island north of Jamaica.
- Palmyra Atoll - Palmyra Atoll is an island that is in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean with Samoa being its closest neighbor.
- Baker Island - this small island is located several thousand kilometers south of Hawaii and does not have a population.
- Howland Island - this strategic military island is located in the South Pacific Ocean.
- Jarvis Island - Jarvis Island is also located in the South Pacific Ocean with its closest neighbor being Rarotonga of the Cook Islands.
- Midway Islands - a small and uninhabited island chain in the South Pacific Ocean.
- Wake Island - you can find this U.S. Territory in between Hawaii and Japan.
- Johnston Atoll - this beautiful island area is a highly protected marine sanctuary.
- Kingman Reef - a beautiful reef that is predominantly underwater located in the South Pacific Ocean.
The majority of these islands are just a mere 1-2 square miles in size and do not play as significant of a role as U.S. Territories and do not have their own form of governance. Nonetheless, they are still lands that are owned by America.
About THE AUTHOR
We loved family’s outdoor adventures so much we started a land business just to help others buy their own land. We’ve sold to dozens of people from ATV weekend warriors to camping enthusiasts to retired truck drivers. Our inventory spans five western states. We’ve been trained by experience, land acquisition courses, and hundreds of hours meeting with county assessors and clerks, zoning officials, realtors, and land investors. We’ve answered hundreds of questions from people regarding the buying and use of land.Read More About Brittany Melling