There Is No Free or Cheap Government Land

Congress Abolished Homesteading in 1976

Pioneers taking part in the Oklahoma Land Rush
Oklahoma Land Rush for Free Homestead Land. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Free government land, also known as claim-free government land no longer exists. There is no longer a federal homesteading program and any public land the government does sell is sold at no less than fair market value.

Under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLMPA), the federal government took over ownership of public lands and abolished all remaining traces of the often-amended Homestead Act of 1862.

Specifically, the FLMPA declared that "the public lands be retained in Federal ownership unless as a result of the land use planning procedure provided in this Act, it is determined that disposal of a particular parcel will serve the national interest..."

Today, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees the use of some 264 million acres of public land, representing about one-eighth of all the land in the United States. In passing the FLMPA, Congress assigned the main duty of the BLM as "the management of the public lands and their various resource values so that they are utilized in the combination that will best meet the present and future needs of the American people."

While the BLM does not offer much land for sale because of a 1976 congressional mandate to generally retain these lands in public ownership, the agency does occasionally sell parcels of land when its land use planning analysis determines disposal is appropriate.

What Types of Lands Are Sold?

The federal lands sold by the BLM are generally unimproved rural woodland, grassland or desert parcels located mostly in the western states. The parcels are typically not served by utilities like electricity, water or sewer, and may not be accessible by maintained roads. In other words, the parcels for sale are truly “in the middle of nowhere.”

Where Are the Lands for Sale Located?

Usually part of the original public domain established during the western expansion of the United States, most of the land is in the 11 Western states and the state of Alaska, although some scattered parcels are located in the East.

Almost all are in the Western States of Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming.

Because of land entitlements to the State of Alaska and to Alaska Natives, no public land sales will be conducted in Alaska in the foreseeable future, according to the BLM.

There are also small amounts in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Washington, and Wisconsin.

There are no public lands managed by the BLM in Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia.

How Is the Land Sold?

The Bureau of Land Management sells unimproved public land through a modified bidding process that favors adjoining landowners, open public auction or direct sale to a single buyer. Minimum acceptable bids are based on land value appraisals prepared and approved by the Department of the Interior Appraisal Services Directorate. The appraisals are based on factors like ease of access, availability of water, possible uses of the property and comparable property prices in the area.

States Do Offer Some Free Homesteading Land But...

While government-owned lands are no longer available for homesteading, some states and local governments do occasionally offer free land to persons willing to build a home on it. However, these homesteading deals usually come with very specific requirements. For example, Beatrice, Nebraska’s local Homestead Act of 2010 gives homesteaders 18 months to build a minimum 900-square-foot home and live in it for at least the next three years.

However, homesteading seems to be just as tough a row-to-hoe as it was in the 1860s. Two years after Beatrice, Nebraska enacted its homesteading act, the Wall Street Journal reported that no one had actually claimed a parcel of land. While dozens of people from across the nation had applied, they all dropped out of the program when they began to realize “how work is involved,” a city official told the newspaper. 

About the Homestead Acts

Enacted between 1862 and 1866, the Homestead Acts allowed Americans to acquire more than 160 million acres—250 thousand square miles of public land, or about 10% of the total land area of the current United States. Given away virtually free to some 1.6 million homesteaders, most of the land was located west of the Mississippi River. Considered some of America’s most impactful pieces of legislation, the Homestead Acts made Western expansion possible by allowing citizens of all walks of life, including formerly enslaved people, women, and immigrants to become landowners.

Signed by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862, the first of these laws, the Homestead Act of 1862, gave all Americans the right to purchase 160-acre plots of public land for a small filing fee. Any adult who had not fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War could apply to claim a homestead plot. While the Southern Homestead Act of 1866 encouraged Black Americans to take part, racial discrimination and bureaucratic red tape impeded their ability to do so.

Homesteading ended in 1976 with the enactment of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. By the 1970s, the emphasis of the federal government’s policy had shifted to retaining control of Western public lands, mainly for their valuable natural resources, such as minerals, oil, natural gas, and water. The only exception was in Alaska, where homesteading was allowed until 1986. The last homestead allowed under the Homestead Act was created on an 80-acre plot of land on the Stony River in southwestern Alaska in 1979. 

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Longley, Robert. "There Is No Free or Cheap Government Land." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/no-free-or-cheap-government-land-3321696. Longley, Robert. (2021, February 16). There Is No Free or Cheap Government Land. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/no-free-or-cheap-government-land-3321696 Longley, Robert. "There Is No Free or Cheap Government Land." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/no-free-or-cheap-government-land-3321696 (accessed September 19, 2021).