Key Issues > Managing Natural Resources
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Managing Natural Resources

A variety of agencies are responsible for protecting our nation’s land and water natural resources. The management of these resources is largely characterized by the struggle to balance the demand for greater use of these resources with the need to conserve and protect them for the benefit of future generations.

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The federal government owns and manages approximately 650 million acres of land in the United States—about 30 percent of the nation’s total surface area (see fig. 1).

 

Figure 1: Federal Lands Managed by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service

Federal Lands Managed

Four major federal land management agencies—the Department of Agriculture’s U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and National Park Service—are responsible for managing about 95 percent of these lands and resources for a variety of uses. Specifically, BLM and the Forest Service manage federal land for activities such as recreation, timber harvesting, livestock grazing, oil and gas production, and mining. FWS is responsible for managing federal land primarily to conserve and protect fish, wildlife, and their habitat, among other compatible uses such as hunting and fishing. The National Park Service manages federal land to conserve, preserve, protect, and interpret the nation’s natural, cultural, and historic resources. In addition, Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs provides basic services to more than 560 federally recognized tribes, including natural resources management on Indian lands. (See figure 2 for land management distribution information.)

Figure 2: Distribution of land managed by the Forest Service and Interior land management agencies, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs

Figure 2: Distribution of land managed by the Forest Service and Interior land management agencies, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs

Other prominent federal agencies involved in natural resources management include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), within the Department of Commerce, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps). NOAA works to conserve and protect natural resources through fisheries management, coastal restoration, and supporting marine commerce; development of daily weather forecasts and severe storm warnings; and ongoing climate monitoring and research. Under its Civil Works Program, the Corps plans, constructs, operates, and maintains a wide range of water resources projects, including efforts in the Everglades, the Louisiana coast, and along many of our nation’s major waterways. The Corps is also responsible for executing the cleanup of formerly used defense sites.

Natural resources management work related to federal lands and waters touches on many of these activities. Specifically,

 

  • Federal land management, including recreation, timber harvesting, livestock grazing, wilderness and species protection, and wildland fire management;
  • Water resources management, including wetland protection, coastal management, flood control, freshwater supply, and the link between water resources and energy production;
  • Oceans and fisheries, including marine species protection, fisheries management, tsunami hazard mitigation, and marine aquaculture;
  • Native American land management issues, including taking land in trust, irrigation, rights-of-way, and land claims.
  • Mineral and other natural resource extraction on federal lands, including hardrock and coal mining as well as onshore oil and gas development.
Looking for our recommendations? Click on any report to find each associated recommendation and its current implementation status.

Army Corps of Engineers:

Cost Increases in Flood Control Projects and Improving Communication with Nonfederal Sponsors
GAO-14-35:
Published: Dec 20, 2013. Publicly Released: Jan 22, 2014.

Endangered Sea Turtles:

Better Coordination, Data Collection, and Planning Could Improve Federal Protection and Recovery Efforts
GAO-12-242:
Published: Jan 31, 2012. Publicly Released: Mar 1, 2012.

Hardrock Mining:

BLM Needs to Revise Its Systems for Assessing the Adequacy of Financial Assurances
GAO-12-189R:
Published: Dec 12, 2011. Publicly Released: Dec 22, 2011.

Federal Lands:

Wildland Fire Management:

More Reports

Payments to Counties:

Helium Program:

Urgent Issues Facing BLM's Storage and Sale of Helium Reserves
GAO-13-351T:
Published: Feb 14, 2013. Publicly Released: Feb 14, 2013.

Renewable Energy:

Agencies Have Taken Steps Aimed at Improving the Permitting Process for Development on Federal Lands
GAO-13-189:
Published: Jan 18, 2013. Publicly Released: Mar 13, 2013.

Flood Insurance:

Participation of Indian Tribes in Federal and Private Programs
GAO-13-226:
Published: Jan 4, 2013. Publicly Released: Jan 4, 2013.

Rural Water Infrastructure:

Additional Coordination Can Help Avoid Potentially Duplicative Application Requirements
GAO-13-111:
Published: Oct 16, 2012. Publicly Released: Oct 16, 2012.

Unconventional Oil and Gas Development:

Key Environmental and Public Health Requirements
GAO-12-874:
Published: Sep 5, 2012. Publicly Released: Oct 9, 2012.

Farm Programs:

Direct Payments Should Be Reconsidered
GAO-12-640:
Published: Jul 3, 2012. Publicly Released: Jul 3, 2012.

Highway Projects:

Some Federal and State Practices to Expedite Completion Show Promise
GAO-12-593:
Published: Jun 6, 2012. Publicly Released: Jul 10, 2012.

Unconventional Oil and Gas Production:

Opportunities and Challenges of Oil Shale Development
GAO-12-740T:
Published: May 10, 2012. Publicly Released: May 10, 2012.

Federal Land Management:

Availability and Potential Reliability of Selected Data Elements at Five Agencies
GAO-12-691T:
Published: May 3, 2012. Publicly Released: May 3, 2012.
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  • portrait of Anne-Marie Fennell
    • Anne-Marie Fennell
    • Director, Natural Resources and Environment
    • fennella@gao.gov
    • 202-512-3841