Election 1944: One-fifth of all land in U.S. now owned by federal government (8-4-44)

The Pittsburgh Press (August 4, 1944)


One-fifth of all land in U.S. now owned by federal government

New Deal encroachment program threatens existence of states, GOP governors warn

Washington –
The federal government now owns one-fifth of all the land in the continental United States.

Its holdings of about 384 million acres exceed in size the combined areas of 21 entire states – Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana.

Its land acquisitions in the last four years – about 15 million acres – almost equal the area of West Virginia.

This is the situation Thomas E. Dewey, Republican presidential nominee, and other Republican governors were talking about when they declared at St. Louis yesterday that:

If, under the guise of conservation as advocated by the exponents of bureaucracy and federal control, this acquisition and encroachment program continues, we shall soon find ownership of our lands lodged in the federal government sufficiently to threaten seriously the very existence of many of our states and the loss of local self-government to millions of free American citizens.

Senator Harry Byrd’s Economy Committee, the source of the above statistics, also found the extension of federal land ownership “alarming” when it reported on the situation to Congress last fall.

11% increase in six years

Since 1938, the Committee said, the area of federal land holdings had increased 11%. Much of this growth, it added, had been for defense and war purposes. By purchase, condemnation and other means, and by transfers of land from the public domain, the War Department had acquired more than 17 million acres in two and a half years, bringing the total area in war use by this and other agencies to 43,181,000 acres.

Charging that purchases had been excessive, the Committee recommended that federal agencies curtail plans to buy more land, begin immediate liquidation of surplus holdings, and centralize real estate functions to eliminate duplication and waste.

Loss in taxes cited

Nothing that the 384 million acres of federal land, plus more than 50 million acres under Indian ownership, are tax exempt, the Byrd group cited “growing concern in many states” over the loss of large amounts of taxable property to the central government, resulting in heavier burdens on local taxpayers, and worry over the effect that post-war “dumping” of large tracts might have on local realty values.

The major part of the government-owned land – 335 million acres – is in the public domain, and most of that is in use for forest conservation, grazing, national parks and the like. Uncle Sam has acquired the rest from private owners, at a cost, including buildings and other improvements, of $6.184 billion, according to the Byrd Committee.

Republicans offer solution

The 1944 Republican platform, which the governors in St. Louis cited as pointing the way to a solution of the government land problem, promises:

Consistent with military needs, the prompt return to private ownership of lands acquired for war purposes; withdrawal or acquisition of lands for establishment of national parks, monuments and wildlife refuges, only after due regard to local problems and under close controls to be established by Congress, and restoration of the long-established public-land policy which provides opportunity of ownership by citizens to promote the highest land use.