Key Issues > Managing Federal Lands and Waters
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Managing Federal Lands and Waters

Multiple federal agencies manage the nation’s land and water resources. However, these agencies face challenges with protecting and managing these resources.

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A variety of agencies are responsible for managing and protecting our nation’s land and water 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.

The federal government owns and manages approximately 650 million acres of land in the United States—about 30% of the nation’s total surface area. Four major federal land management agencies—the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service and the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and National Park Service (NPS)—are responsible for managing about 95% of these lands. Other prominent federal agencies involved in natural resources management include the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps).

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

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

These agencies face a number of challenges with effectively managing the nation’s natural resources. For instance:

  • BLM, FWS, NPS, and the Forest Service use funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to conserve land or enhance recreational activities. However, unlike the other agencies,  BLM does not maintain centralized data about this land. Doing so would help BLM maintain a more complete inventory of its lands, respond more quickly to information requests from Congress, and provide additional information to manage its lands.
  • The Corps, among other things, studies the potential costs and benefits of flood risk management projects—such as levees, floodwalls, or building relocation—to inform decision makers about their potential economic effects. However, the analyses in some Corps’ studies were not always transparent. For example, studies did not always consider the limitations of the computer models used in analyzing flood damage. Without such information, reviewers can’t make the best decisions on which projects would be most beneficial.

  • Debris in the ocean—such as plastic bottles and abandoned fishing gear—is a global economic and environmental problem. Multiple U.S. federal agencies work together on the Interagency Marine Debris Coordinating Committee to address this issue. The committee shares information on members’ activities, such as education and cleanup efforts. But although it’s required to report on the effectiveness of these activities and recommend funding priorities, the committee does not do so.
  • Federal agencies managing ocean fisheries have limited information to determine exactly how climate change might harm specific fish populations. The National Marine Fisheries Service (a part of NOAA) is in the early stages of implementing its strategy to increase the use of climate information in fisheries management. However, the draft agency plans do not have measurable targets to help the agency determine if its objectives are being achieved.
  • Native American tribes have raised concerns that cultural items, including sacred objects, may have been taken without their consent and auctioned overseas. To help tribes try to repatriate these items, a federal working group helps facilitate collaboration among agencies, uses social media to raise public awareness, and takes legal actions. However, agencies have faced challenges proving violations of existing U.S. laws. These agencies should assess whether and how amending U.S. laws would facilitate the return of these items to tribes.
  • After mining, a coal company is required to restore the land it disturbed. The federal government requires coal companies to get bonds to assure that they can pay for these activities. Federal law permits coal mine operators in some cases to guarantee these costs on the basis of their own finances (self-bonding) rather than by securing a bond through another company or providing collateral. However, self-bonds may be riskier now due to industry bankruptcies and lower coal demand. Congress could consider amending the law to eliminate self-bonding.
  • Ranchers must obtain permits or leases from agencies to graze livestock on federal lands. Unauthorized grazing may take various forms, such as grazing more livestock than permitted or grazing without a permit. However, the frequency and extent of unauthorized grazing on BLM and Forest Service lands are largely unknown because agencies prefer to handle most incidents informally (e.g., with a telephone call) and do not record them. As a result, these agencies do not have a complete record of unauthorized grazing incidents with which to identify any potential pattern of violations.
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  • portrait of Anne-Marie Fennell
    • Anne-Marie Fennell
    • Director, Natural Resources and Environment
    • fennella@gao.gov
    • 202-512-3841