In 1812 Congress established the General Land Office to administer the public lands, with the primary purpose of passing public lands into private ownership. By the mid-nineteenth century, most of the accessible land east of the Mississippi River had been settled and developed. However, the arid and rugged lands to the west remained largely unaltered by human influence until the first party of Mormon pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley in July 1847. The area they settled was claimed by Mexico but soon became part of the public domain of the United States as a result of the Mexican War of 1848.
The process of land transfer to private interests was unusual in Utah Territory. The primary reason was conflicts between the Mormon Church and the United States over such subjects as polygamy and separation of church and state. As was the case in other territories, an elected territorial legislature provided the basic guidelines for general land use until transfer under U.S. law took place. But because of the unsettled church-state conflict, the citizens of Utah Territory could not take advantage of U.S. land disposal laws until late in the territorial period. The early Utahns were not permitted to enjoy the benefits of the Preemption Act of 1830 which allowed settlers to buy up to 160 acres of land for $1.25 per acre, nor could they take up land under the Homestead Act of 1862 which granted 160 acres to those willing to settle the American frontier. Not until 1869 was U.S. law applicable in Utah Territory, and even then the primary impetus was the development of non-Mormon interests, especially those arising from mining and railroad development.
So despite its early settlement, Utah was the last area in the continental United States where the public domain was opened to private ownership. Although many settlers had squatter claims on land under authority of the territorial legislature, not one acre of land in Utah was recognized under U.S. law as privately owned until January 1869, when the first Utah land office was opened in Salt Lake City.
The political tide which had encouraged random settlement and development began to turn in 1934 when Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act. Through this act, authority was given to classify land according to its best use and to reject applications for other uses. The act also provided for regulation of livestock grazing on the public lands, and the Grazing Service was established to administer the new law. Other conservation milestones occurred when the General Land Office was merged with the Grazing Service to create the Bureau of Land Management in 1946, and when the Classification and Multiple Use Act was passed in 1964 calling for classification of federal lands for retention or disposal and for the multiple-use management of the lands that were retained.
The greatest shift in national attitudes toward the public lands was manifested in 1976 when Congress enacted the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), which established a coherent legislative mandate for managing the public lands and made the BLM a true multiple-use agency. The law recognized that public land is a national asset, providing goods, services, and vast natural resources for millions of Americans. FLPMA provides a clear policy that most public lands are to be retained in federal ownership and managed by the BLM under a concept of multiple use for all Americans, with full participation of the public in decision making and a careful balancing of the interests of competing users.
Multiple use provides for the development of needed resources while protecting other resource values from inadvertent damage or destruction. Through a planning, decision-making, and management process that balances alternative uses and involves the public at all steps, the BLM can provide opportunities for many different uses of the public lands and ensure that its many resources will remain available in the future.
Approximately 270 million acres – about one-eighth of the nation’s land area – remain today as public lands managed by the BLM for multiple use. In Utah, the BLM manages about 22 million acres, or 42 percent of the state’s land area.
The BLM’s national office is in Washington, D.C. In addition, there are twelve state offices, 58 district offices, and 140 resource area offices. In Utah, the state office is located in Salt Lake City, with five district offices located in Vernal, Richfield, Moab, Cedar City, and Salt Lake City. Sixteen resource area offices are scattered throughout the state. The BLM has about 9,650 employees, most of whom work in field offices in the West. Multiple-use management requires many skills and talents. Foresters, range conservationists, wildlife biologists, archaeologists, cadastral surveyors, engineers, recreation specialists, and many other professionals are needed to care for and manage the public lands.