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public land,in U.S. history, land owned by the federal government but not reserved for any special purpose, e.g., for a park or a military reservation. Public land is also called land in the public domain. Except in Texas, which made retention of its public lands one of the conditions for joining the Union, there are no state public lands. Seven of the original states ceded their western lands to the federal government when they entered the Union. Additional public land was acquired with the Louisiana Purchase (1803), Florida (1819), Oregon (1846), the Mexican Cession (1848), the Gadsden Purchase (1853), and Alaska (1867). Almost as soon as public land was acquired the federal government began to dispose of it through grants to states, railroad companies, settlers (see Homestead ActHomestead Act,
1862, passed by the U.S. Congress. It provided for the transfer of 160 acres (65 hectares) of unoccupied public land to each homesteader on payment of a nominal fee after five years of residence; land could also be acquired after six months of residence at $1.
..... Click the link for more information. , 1862), colleges (see land-grant colleges and universitiesland-grant colleges and universities,
U.S. institutions benefiting from the provisions of the Morrill Act (1862), which gave to the states federal lands for the establishment of colleges offering programs in agriculture, engineering, and home economics as well as in the
..... Click the link for more information. ), and cash sales. It was charged that large companies frequently acquired extensive holdings by dishonest means, and many of the new owners obtained considerable revenue by selling the land. A reaction to this easy policy set in toward the end of the 19th cent., and steps were taken to ensure the conservation of natural resourcesconservation of natural resources,
the wise use of the earth's resources by humanity. The term conservation came into use in the late 19th cent. and referred to the management, mainly for economic reasons, of such valuable natural resources as timber, fish, game, topsoil,
..... Click the link for more information. by withdrawing public lands from sale. Thereafter the government leased such land for grazing, lumbering, mining, the harnessing of water power, and other purposes, while maintaining regulatory control. By the 1970s there was considerable controversy over the need to make the best use of the public land's valuable resources while still preserving the land for future use and expanded recreational activities. Most of the nation's remaining public land is in the western part of the country, about half of it in Alaska.
See E. L. Peffer, The Closing of the Public Domain (1951, repr. 1972); W. C. Calef, Private Grazing and Public Lands (1960); V. Carstensen, ed., The Public Lands (1962); P. Gates, History of Public Land Law Development (1968); M. J. Rohrbough, The Land Office Business (1968).