Nevada's borders look like this:

enter image description here

However, most of this "state" map is actually property belonging to the federal government. How does this ownership work? Namely:

  1. Does the federal government have to pay to acquire more land? How is the price established?

  2. Does the federal government pay property taxes on that land?

  3. Can other states own land in other states?

  4. Does the federal government have to obey state laws in its use of the land?

  5. Can Nevada acquire that land through eminent domain?

  6. What power of the United States (in the 10th amendment sense) allows the federal government to possess most of Nevada?

  7. (Optional) Do any other countries have similar arrangements where the central government "owns" large amounts of constiuent principalities?

(I'm not looking for an essay, just a basic understanding of this political structure.)

  • 4
    I count 9 distinct questions here....
    – CGCampbell
    Jun 24, 2020 at 0:34
  • 2
    @CGCampbell, would you recommend I create 9 posts? I think it makes sense to keep them together as their answers are possibly closely related. Jun 24, 2020 at 0:38
  • 2
    I'd recommend you start with 1-2 questions about what you'd most like to know, and then ask follow up questions based on what wasn't covered in the answers to those questions. For example, a question such as "Does the federal government follow local state laws on the land it owns?" along with some examples like taxes and environmental regulations could cover questions 2 and 4, and a question such as "What is the process for the federal government buying land in a state, and can a state do the same in another state?" would cover 1, 3, and maybe 6.
    – Giter
    Jun 24, 2020 at 5:14

2 Answers 2


There are at least five distinct types of "land belonging to the federal government" in Nevada (and in many other states).

  1. National Parks, Monuments, and Recreation areas: Great Basin NP and I think part of Death Valley NP, Lake Mead NRA, and Tule Springs Fossil Beds NM.

  2. National Forests: Public lands generally open to most sorts of public use, under the management of the Forest Service: https://www.fs.usda.gov/

  3. Other Public Lands, managed by the Bureau of Land Management: https://www.blm.gov/ Likewise open to many public uses.

  4. Military bases.

  5. Real estate: If say the IRS wants to build an office in downtown Reno, they usually have to buy the land just like anyone else. They may use eminent domain to force the purchase, but they still have to pay market value.

The land covered by 1-4 (and most of the rest) basically became US property when the US took over the area from Mexico. Some parts of it were then transferred to private ownership through various means, e.g. the Homestead Act, or to incentivize the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. If you look at a land ownership map of the area along the route (fairly close to I-80), you'll see a checkerboard pattern of square miles ("sections") that alternate between federal and private. The private sections were deeded to the railroad companies.

It's a little misleading to call 1-3 purely Federal land. Instead, it's PUBLIC land, and supposed to be managed for the use and benefit of the public. E.g. you can hike & camp on much of that land, something you really couldn't do on military bases.

To answer a couple of the other questions:

  1. The Federal government does have to pay to acquire more land. Sometimes it will use eminent domain (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eminent_domain ), sometimes it acquires it through ordinary commercial transactions. For instance, in recent years it's been selling some lands close to Las Vegas, and using the money to purchase environmentally sensitive land near Lake Tahoe.

  2. For other countries having similar arrangements, see for instance "Crown lands" in Canada, Australia, and other British Commonwealth countries: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crown_land

  • "It's a little misleading to call 1-3 purely Federal land." Whoever most controls who/when/how it's used, I'd call it their land. Jun 24, 2020 at 3:34
  • Pretty much all of the states and thevast majority of the United States were areas that were originally owned by the US government (Louisiana Purchase, Seward's Folly). Then the federal government would give up or cede control of parcels of that land to cities, counties, states, etc. That's seems to be the majority of the United States that was originally federal lands that doesn't seem to fall into any of your categories neatly. I mean, it was purchased real estate, but not like buying a small parcel to put an agency building on. While the example was Nevada, the question seemed broader. Jun 24, 2020 at 14:36
  • @PoloHoleSet: This rather gets into legal quibbles, but with things like the Louisiana Purchase, what was bought was sovereignty, not land title. E.g. the real estate owned by people in New Orleans didn't become property of the US government. They still had title, just under a different government. The lands in the West didn't actually belong to anyone (other than Indians) until the government somehow granted title to it. So Forest Service & BLM lands are the remainder to which title was never given. (I'm probably not using the correct legalisms.)
    – jamesqf
    Jun 24, 2020 at 16:01
  • @jamesqf - No argument here. It just seemed like the majority of land area in the US, including that which is federally owned, didn't fall neatly into those categories, so that seemed like a gap to me. Pedantic on my part, particularly since it's a closed question. Jun 24, 2020 at 16:03
  • 1
    @Paul Draper: My point is that unlike 4 & 5, or privately owned lands, the public generally has access to 1-3.
    – jamesqf
    Jun 24, 2020 at 16:04

What power of the United States (in the 10th amendment sense) allows the federal government to possess most of Nevada?

The Tenth Amendment didn't apply to the federal government's acquisition of land in Nevada.

BLM Nevada History

In 1846, the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican-American War. Part of the treaty included transferring all the land in what is now Nevada from the Mexican government to the federal government of the United States. When Nevada became a state in 1864, its constitution explicitly said that the state wouldn’t claim any public land that wasn’t spoken for. This left the vast majority of Nevada’s land in the public estate, managed by the federal government. Today, Nevada contains forty-eight million acres of public land, amounting to 63 percent of the state, managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Does the federal government pay property taxes on that land?

No, neither the state nor any county has authority over that land, except for certain public roads and traffic enforcement.

Does the federal government have to obey state laws in its use of the land?

No, the federal government is subject to its laws only.

Can Nevada acquire that land through eminent domain?

No, the federal government is the superior government.

  • 1
    Huh. Do you happen to know if the acquisition was similar for the other mostly federal states? (Utah, Idaho, Alaska, Oregon) Jun 24, 2020 at 1:24
  • 2
    @PaulDraper - There will be some differences among the states. The link provided covers BLM history for several areas, it does not cover National Parks, Monuments, Seashores, etc. Nevada, being a rather specific case, may not serve as a good example for the general question asked in the title.
    – Rick Smith
    Jun 24, 2020 at 1:37

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