The Failure of Public Land Law on Owyhee County Rangelands

Publication Date


Type of Culminating Activity


Degree Title

Master of Arts in History



Major Advisor

Todd Shallat


John Freemuth


Sandra Schackel


This thesis examines the failure of federal grazing land policy in Owyhee County, Idaho and other arid western states. Congress did not understand the western geography when they passed the 160 acre Homestead Act in 1862. The 1902 Reclamation Act made farming more feasible, but ranchers still needed more than 160 acres. As Phillip O. Foss points out in Federal Land Policy, public land policies forced overgrazing as the rancher overgrazed his own homestead and then moved to the public domain to compete with other cattlemen and sheepmen. Congress then put in place band-aid legislation when they realized the Homestead Act had flaws that did not address ranching. Pushed by politics the federal grazing domain stayed under constant conflict. This thesis is based on public land history, federal documents, and local newspapers. It includes interviews with people involved in the conflict with the intent of understanding why federal land policy has failed on western public lands.

One possible solution, while probably not a popular one, is privatizing some public lands. Gary Libecap in Locking Up the Range, believes that federal land agencies have a vested interest in keeping conflict going to insure growth and continued congressional funding. He believes privatizing would decrease federal expenditure and insure that ranchers move toward maximizing their profits and change market demands for range use.

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