Multiple federal agencies manage the nation’s land and water resources. However, these agencies face challenges with protecting and managing these 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
These agencies face a number of challenges with effectively managing the nation’s natural resources.
- 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.
- Alaska contains over 12,000 rivers and more than 3 million lakes that often serve as important transportation corridors due to Alaska’s limited highway system. Under federal law, a state owns submerged lands beneath waters that were navigable as of the date of statehood—1959 for Alaska. Two complex and time-consuming processes can be used for resolving the ownership of submerged lands. While ownership of specific submerged lands is being resolved, federal land management agencies have taken some steps towards management of these lands through an interagency workgroup. However, they have not developed a process for collaborative land management that involves the state. Such a process could reduce intergovernmental conflicts and uncertainties for the public and stakeholders, such as Alaska Native Corporations that own lands adjacent to waterways.
- Most fisheries managers aren't factoring climate change into their management plans, but some are leading climate-related initiatives. Managers could benefit from learning about the actions others are taking. However, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)—which leads science and oversight of fisheries management and conservation in federal waters—doesn't regularly collect and share information about these efforts.
- Jetties, breakwaters, and other coastal structures shelter harbor entrances so ships can safely navigate to land. The structures also protect coastlines from erosion during severe storms. The Army Corps of Engineers builds and maintains these structures to congressional specifications. For example, congressional authorization may set the length of a structure, and the Corps may not be able to adjust it for today's more frequent and severe storms. Absent a change in authority or an additional authorization the Corps is only authorized to consider these structures' navigational benefits—not environmental ones—when prioritizing repairs and maintenance.
A Collapsed Breakwater in Buffalo, NY, after Storms in 2019 (top), with Comparison to Earlier Condition (bottom)
- 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.