BLM’s Role in Homesteading: 1946 to the Present
On May 20, 1862, President Lincoln signed into law the nation’s first Homestead Act. It set into motion a new process for privatizing land. 1862 also marked the 50th anniversary of the General Land Office (GLO). For the GLO, the 1862 law added another task to its administration duties for the nation’s public lands. The first application claims for homesteads were filed in dozens of GLO offices in the public land states of the Midwest and West.
In 1946, with the merger of the General Land Office and Grazing Service, a new federal agency was created. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) picked up all remaining responsibilities involving homesteading. The BLM continued processing the dwindling number of homestead claims in the Lower 48 States, while handling a post-World War II increase in homesteading in Alaska.
Under the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act, most of the lands in the lower 48 had been withdrawn from homesteading. Instead this land was placed in grazing districts that would remain federally owned. By 1937, the total number of new homestead applications in all of the United States had fallen to just 609. This was less than one-twelfth of the 7,741 applicants in 1934, which itself was less than one-twelfth of the number of yearly applicants in some of the peak application years.
In 1946, the year that the BLM was created, an all-time low of just 144 applications for homesteads were filed nationwide. So was homesteading dying out?
In many ways it was. Yet, before it ended, homesteading continued in a few areas with BLM as its manager. Some lands were opened to post-World War II homesteaders (often by a lottery system) in areas where reclamation projects had been completed. The largest block of these lands was in the Columbia Basin of Washington State. Over a dozen similar reclaimed dry areas, including part of the Klamath River Basin in southern Oregon, were also opened after W.W. II to limited “Reclamation Act” homesteading. In the later 20th century, and perhaps even into the early 21st century, BLM was still issuing patents for some of those tracts.
Between 1946 and 1986, the 40 years that BLM managed homesteading in Alaska, thousands of homestead claims were filed. In 1988, the BLM awarded title to the last homestead under the 1862 Homestead Act, and as of early 2011, six homesites and two headquarter sites claims remained to be resolved under the 1927 Act and its amendments. Once these claims are resolved, along with any remaining Reclamation Act claims in the Lower 48, the BLM’s immediate role in homesteading will have ended.
However, the story doesn’t end there. Many of the land ownership patterns and issues that the BLM faces today are a result of homestead laws. This includes managing the subsurface estate of homesteads patented under the 1916 Stock Raising Homestead Act. For those, the homesteader received only the surface estate of the land, The GLO (and BLM starting in 1946) retained ownership for the federal government of the subsurface minerals, such as oil and gas.
As recently as 1993, Congress amended the 1916 Stock Raising Homestead Act to better manage split-estate situation and the extraction of subsurface minerals on these types of homesteads. That was the last direct homestead-related legislation so far, but whether it will truly be the last remains to be seen.