This Land Is Your Land: The Foreign Concept of the Bureau of Land Management
SPRINGDALE, UTAH- To a native New Yorker such as myself, the lyrics of Woody Guthrie's iconic folk song "This Land Is Your Land" hardly ring true. The concept that this land is all of ours is foreign to us...there is no such this as land that is yours, ours, or really even public for that matter. There is my land and there is your land. And if you want to do something on my land, then you need to pay me. That's the attitude towards real estate that I grew accustomed to growing up in NYC.
With that being said, not all land in the U.S. is considered real estate, and there's a nifty federal agency to oversee land that actually does belong to all of us: the Bureau of Land Management.
Back in the day when the current westernmost states were still territories, people were free to homestead. Folks could simply move out West, build a home, farm the land for 5 years, and become property owners. Seeing as they were free to choose 160 acres of their own, not all land was homesteaded and significant tracts were left unclaimed. Over time, the federal government exercised eminent domain over parcels of the West, establishing National Parks, Wilderness Areas, and Wildlife Refuges. For the most part, the leftover land unclaimed by private citizens or the federal government falls under the purview of the BLM.
BLM land is used for a variety of purposes. Some is leased to mining companies for mineral extraction, others to oil & gas companies for prospecting. Private citizens can even pay the BLM for the privilege of letting their livestock graze on this land. But some portions are considered free and open for use by the American people, for recreational purposes. In coastal states where real estate is incredibly expensive and highly valued, recreational land isn’t really feasible. It’s too valuable to do anything except buy, sell, and develop.
But here in the middle of the country, in the Great Basin, in the Colorado Plateau—sparsely populated areas filled with National Parks, wildlife, and harsh climates to boot, BLM land is free for citizens to use as they please. Sure, you are asked to please look after your fire, and pack out what you pack in. There are certain broad limits on camping, intended to encourage public use but discourage public abuse…these restrictions are sensible, and those who have any interest in the common good will happily obey them. Staying on existing roads and trails, and camping where others have been before so as not to trod on ground essential to the ecological diversity of the area isn't too much to ask.
In BLM country you can just roll up, pick a little site that’s a respectful distance to others nearby, pitch a tent, and stay there for the night—all at no charge. There is no government agency providing services, and there is no government agency collecting any fees. It is land that is free for everyone to use. My experience with BLM land was just south of Zion National Park—there’s a large tract that I camped on for free when the campgrounds in Zion were taken.
So next time you’re looking to camp somewhere, or even go on an adventure somewhere in the American West—remember, there is land that’s free for public use. It’s your land, it’s my land, it’s unconquered by government, by private expansion, and it is free for you to use and enjoy as a citizen of the US—just remember to be respectful. Don’t we want to keep it this way?