MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The leader of a small, armed group that’s been occupying a federal nature preserve told reporters Wednesday the group won’t leave until a plan is in place to turn the federal land over to the locals. The protest is part of a long-running dispute over federal policies on public lands. So far, the feds have made no attempt to stop the protest, which is now heading into its sixth day.

The protest, led by Ammon Bundy, is unfolding in Oregon, where the federal government owns about 53 percent of land in the state. In fact, in the 11 most western states in the continental U.S., almost half the land is under the ownership of the feds compared to 4 percent in the rest of the country.

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So, why does the federal government own so much land in the West? Good Question.

The federal lands in the Western states are managed by a number of different agencies. According to the Congressional Research Service, the Department of Defense and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service each control 2 percent, while the National Parks Service controls 6 percent. About 40 percent of the federal land is managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the final half is under control of the Bureau of Land Management. Some of it is used for recreation, timber and conservation, but a good chunk is used for grazing.

“Partly it’s a historical accident, though I keep saying federal ownership isn’t a historical accident,” says Roderick Squires, a professor of geography at the University of Minnesota. “Congress can decide to sell the land whenever they want.”

None of the land within the original 13 colonies was ever owned by the federal government. All national forests and parks in those areas of the country were purchased back by the U.S. government in the 20th century.

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But, out west, the federal government sold or gave away land in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was as an inducement to get people to move from the East Coast to the interior.

“It’s hardscrabble land, beautiful scenery, but hardscrabble land and hard to farm out there,” says Squires.

In the 1890s, though, the government reversed course, saying it was concerned about the timber industry. Policymakers were afraid of running out of forest land, so they decided to hold on the land they had. They figured the government could manage the land better than private interests.

“Then came the recognition that there were other resources that could be best managed by government,” says Squires.

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Right now, 62% of Idaho, 65% of Utah and 85% of Nevada is owned by the federal government. The Congressional Research Services estimates all federal land in the U.S. is worth $463 billion.

Heather Brown