Posted by William Nunnelley on 2014-03-14

By Jack Brymer

The owner of the largest portion of land in the United States continues to be the federal government and, as such, is the "defacto planner" of natural resources in the west, said professor Jamie Skillen in a lecture at Samford University March 12.

According to Dr. Skillen, that portion is 28 percent or 640 million acres. It includes 193 million acres managed by the U.S. Forest Service and 80 million acres by the National Park Service.

Skillen is professor of Environmental Studies at Calvin College and the Oregon Extension. 

Entitled "Who Owns the West?," Skillen's lecture described and explained how political and legal issues came to define the American frontier in ways that distinguish it from other regions of the U.S. He maintains that ownership of the West is a national problem. "There are many ways to focus on the problem but it is a matter of degree," he said, noting that federal lands produce no property taxes.

Skillen described one of the numerous actions by the Federal Government through the years as "layered property rights" in which the owner is not central to the issue. He listed the layers as water, minerals, and oil, gas and coal rights.

He provided visual examples of how the land was obtained, surveyed, inhabited, divided and established based on needs, such as farming, rather than ownership, and explained how laws and land ordinances go back many years to the Land Ordinance of 1785 and to the work of the General Land Office, which Congress established in 1812.

One of the primary purposes of the new office was to put the land into private ownership.  Among the results was the Land Rush of 1889.  "The demand for private ownership continues unabated," he said.

The issue of ownership was further complicated by political considerations, he maintained, in which homesteaders didn't have to report ownership of claims, as well as the establishment of road rights.

As the region began to be settled and grow as a result of federal ordinances and grants such as the Homestead Act and the Mining Law of 1872, the needs changed. Among some of the issues he cited were grazing rights, tribal water rights, Indian fishing and hunting rights.

Today, the issues, including the environment, are complicated by the growth. said Skillen. For example, recreation and the availability of land only magnify but do not replace the issues of the past.

Eric Fournier, professor of Geography at Samford, said the issue has national interest. "It's a piece of the story about what's going on in the country today related to natural resources and how they are used," Dr. Fournier said. He noted specifically the struggle between individual rights and government control.

Skillen noted in a question-and-answer session that the struggle in the future would be between municipalities and agriculture.

Skillen's research interests and publications relate to federal land and resource policy and the American West. The Oregon Extension offers "an engaged learning experience in an intentional community setting." He holds degrees from :Wheaton College, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Ph.D. from Cornell University.

Dr. Brad Creed, Samford's provost and executive vice president, introduced Skillen and noted that his intellect and research experience addressed a topic that fits with Samford's liberal arts focus and is cocurricular with many of Samford's graduate and profession programs.


Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. The Wall Street Journal ranks Samford 1st nationally for student engagement and U.S. News & World Report ranks Samford 37th in the nation for best undergraduate teaching and 97th nationally for best value. Samford enrolls 5,758 students from 48 states and 22 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference, and ranks 3rd nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.