Analysis

Bureau of Land Management 70th Anniversary: America’s Public Land Opportunity

Seven decades after its creation, this federal agency has evolved to include greater conservation, recreation efforts

Vermilion CliffsBob Wick, BLM

Visitors to Arizona’s Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, can view colorful sandstone formations.

This month marks the 70th Anniversary of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This agency manages most of our nation’s shared natural heritage—more than 246 million acres of land—primarily in the Western states and Alaska.

BLM lands may be closer than you think. Over 64 million Americans—more than 1 in 6—live within 100 miles of public lands managed by the BLM. These lands provide outstanding opportunities for outdoor recreation, including hunting, angling, camping, hiking, boating, climbing, bicycling, photography, wildlife viewing, and many other activities. Quiet, or nonmotorized, recreation on these lands has a $2.8 billion economic impact on our economy.

History of the BLM

The BLM is an integral part of American history. Its roots come from the creation of the new republic with lands ceded by the original 13 colonies after the Revolutionary War. 

As the United States acquired additional lands from Spain, France, and other countries, Congress recognized a need to manage these sprawling federal landscapes and in 1812 established the General Land Office within the Treasury Department.

On July 16, 1946, the Grazing Service—which managed animals grazing on public lands—   merged with the General Land Office to form the Bureau of Land Management under the Department of the Interior. 

Nulato HillsDavid Shaw

The BLM administers about 72 million acres in Alaska, including the Unalakleet River surrounded by the Nulato Hills.

The BLM’s mission

For many years, the agency promoted oil and gas development, mining, grazing, and off-road vehicle use on these lands while largely overlooking their many conservation values. Thirty years later, Congress acknowledged that public lands offer many other benefits, and the BLM has evolved to assume a greater conservation and protection mission.

Congress then passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA)—a comprehensive system to manage public lands in a way that manages, per their founding documents, "the quality of scientific, scenic, historical, ecological, environmental, air and atmospheric, water resource, and archeological values.” The FLPMA, often referred to as the BLM's "Organic Act," changed the purpose of the BLM to include a wide array of responsibilities, including conservation and extraction—rather than only selling public lands for homesteads.

As Americans began to appreciate these lands for their unique biological, cultural, historical, recreational, and scenic riches, Congress established the National Landscape Conservation System in 2009. This BLM system safeguards 34 million acres, but these lands are only a small fraction of the agency’s ecologically significant holdings.   

Arkansas RiverBob Wick, BLM

Many BLM lands offer great recreation. Colorado’s Browns Canyon National Monument, above, is a well-known white water rafting spot.

BLM lands represent many types of terrain, ranging from Arctic tundra and Sonoran desert to sage-grass steppes, mountains, and ancient forests that serve as important habitat for fish and big game, such as antelope, bison, bighorn sheep, and elk.  Yet many of these lands continue to be at risk of development.

Pew's work to protect America's public lands is designed to conserve the most important and unspoiled wild places for future generations to use and enjoy. 

Conservation and the BLM

BLM

Media Contact

Susannah Cernojevich

Officer, Communications

202.540.6477