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"She's beautiful, she's rich, she's got huge..."

 
George Yacus
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The United States of America...

(scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail)

Often on Permies.com forums, there are US individuals who eagerly desire a little slice of land to call their own to practice permaculture and to enjoy the simple life.  Who doesn't want to skip the daily grind every so often and head to their own retreat, small farm, garden, pond, or nature nook complete with a few chooks or small animals and fruit trees to boot?  

  • In the United Kingdom, there is the "allotment"
  • In Deutschland and die Schweitz, there is the "kleingarten"
  • In Россия, there is the «дача» or "dacha"

  • I suspect that every culture has this "pattern language" term or concept of a small, rural, food-rich getaway.  I venture to say that it has been embedded in each of our souls ever since the Fall at Eden, where every good tree was within our grasp.  I also believe that permaculture design is doable in any climate where humans find themselves, including in deserts and on marginalized lands.  Now, let's talk about such lands and dream about that "pattern" of the rural getaway for just a little bit.

    The USA Federal gov't owns about 640,000,000 acres of land.  That doesn't really mean much to me until I see a map.  Bring out, yer map!


    Woah! "We The People" are collectively responsible for so much land (28% of the US) that the map looks like it is bleeding with federally owned land!  Now, this map shows ALL federal lands, including things like military ranges where explosive ordnance is dropped.  I suspect you would not want to retreat to such places for your own perma-paradise-plot?  So lets think about more natural and "acceptable" land.  Enter the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

    According to their website, BLM manages 245 million acres, and 155 million of that is used for grazing.  That comes out to BLM managing 1 in every 10 acres of land in the USA.  And in return for BLM services in managing land belonging to "We The People", taxpayers have the privilege of paying BLM $1,200,000,000 annually.  Citizens also have the privilege of paying various fees to use the land they collectively own to enjoy recreationally or for business purposes.  

    Now, here's where the politics come in.  In one camp, there are those among us who believe that property must be protected and shared, and managed collectively by the experts and advisors for the common good, to preserve resources and the environment, because individuals are perhaps not wise enough, or capable enough, or perhaps individuals or corporations are "too greedy", and would not take care of things well enough compared to the collective's wisdom...to have accountability for their own slice of land.  And in the other camp, you have the rugged individuals among us, who believe that each person knows best, for better or worse, and that each is capable and wise enough to provide for themselves and their families and nature, and does not need to be micro-managed or taken care of inefficiently by the collective, and individuals just want to be left alone and held accountable for their own actions, not others'.  Presumably, for better or worse, based on current law and policy, it would seem the majority of Americans fall into the first camp of collectivism, and do not trust the average rugged individual to cherish and protect and improve on land belonging to "We The People".

    Now, just for fun...let's play out the rugged individual camp's policy dream, and see what that comes out to.

    What if, through simple Congressional legislation, under the US Constitution, Article 4, Section 3, Clause 2, those 155 to 245 million acres were to be instantly divided and entrusted to the 331 million individuals that make up "We The People"?  What if, each citizen, right now, were to receive their equitable portion of land to serve as their own future allotment, kleingarten, or dacha?  Would the size of the land be worth it?  Perhaps the parcels would be distributed via lottery?  And perhaps willing individuals could trade one parcel for another to be closer to their family/clan/tribe, but their right to a single parcel of land could never leave them, their family, their children, their tribe/clan...etc.  

    Putting detailed-policy discussions aside, what would be each citizens "fair share" of the BLM land collectively already owned as "We The People"?  Here's the math.

    If just the BLM land was distributed equally to every individual in the US, each person’s allotment would be:

    155M acres of currently grazed land   divided by 331M individuals   = 0.468277 acres    = 20,398 sqft grazable land per individual
    245M acres of total BLM land              divided by 331M individuals   = 0.740181 acres    = 32,242 sqft total land per individual

    So what does that look like?  Well an American Football field is 160’ by 360’.  So dividing by 160 feet…

    20,398 sqft / 160ft = 127ft = to the 42.3 yard-line of grazable land on a football field
    32,242 sqft / 160ft = 201ft = 67 yards total land on a football field

    Basically that comes out to...*drum roll* ONE HALF OF AN (AMERICAN) FOOTBALL FIELD, EACH!  

    I've drawn a few things to scale to help visualize your portion of land, such as a 15' by 15' structure, various full sized ~30' diameter trees, and several rectangular fields each depicting the amount of land needed to grow a bushel of wheat, corn, or beans.  Obviously, much of the land would be in an arid climate.  (A 15'x15' structure, if it received even 12" of annual rainfall, would still harvest +4,000 gallons of fresh water per year.)  But permaculture is possible in every climate, right?

    So, as a permie, would you take it?

    *Edit* Note: BLM land is different from other federally maintained land, such as National Parks, National Forests under the US Forestry Service, and National Wildlife Refuges.
    BLM.png
    America: "[b]She's beautiful, she's rich, she's got [i]huge[/i]...[u]tracts of land[/u][/b]!"
    America:
     
    greg mosser
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    i dunno. in my area, most blm land is national forest. i’d much rather we keep as much of that as contiguous forest.
     
    George Yacus
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    greg mosser wrote:i dunno. in my area, most blm land is national forest. i’d much rather we keep as much of that as contiguous forest.



    It's okay, I researched a little and I believe you are thinking of National Forests, which are separate sytems.  BLM land is mostly out west.  Your local forest is safely managed by separate entities, and I'm not getting that greedy!

    BLM land is managed separately from:
  • US Forest Service (of the Department of Agriculture): manages 193,000,000 acres of land; $5,700,000,000 budget.
  • National Park System  (of the Department of Interior): 84,000,000 acres; $2,700,000,000 budget
  • Fish and Wildlife Service (of the Department of Interior); manages 20,000,000 National Wildlife Refuges, 95,000,000 acres on land and 760,000,000 submerged acres ; $2,800,000,000 budget.
  • https://www.fws.gov/refuges/about/public-lands-waters/index.html


    (Infographic courtesy of Outdoor Industry Association found via REI website)

    For kicks, if you wanted to get greedy and include the lands of BLM, FS, USFWS, and NPS, each citizen of “We The People” would have ~ 1.855 acres, which is just about one full soccer field.  A sizeable amount.

    But if each individual of "We The People" got super ridiculously greedy and demanded to take their per-capita portion of the budget away from all those services immediately, over the course of a lifetime it would only amount to $2,942.

    $5.7B+$2.7B+$2.8B+$1.2B = $12,400,000,000 / 331M = $37.46 a year. * 78 years life expectancy.
     
    Douglas Alpenstock
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    Sometimes public land is set aside for a reason. How much of that land is arable by any reasonable standard? How much would be lost to the access roads that are needed?
     
    Mike Haasl
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    I think most of that BLM land is BLM land because no one wanted to settle it or buy it back in the day.  I've camped on BLM land in Utah.  It's the kind of land where I think a deer would need 30 acres to graze without dying.  It's pretty.  It's remote.  It's beautiful.  It's dry.  It's sandy/rocky/barren.  It's currently grazed by a few cows.  And if everyone was given a little slice of it, some would do dumb things with it.  Most wouldn't want to travel 2000 miles to get to it.  You surely couldn't grow food on it very easily.
     
    George Yacus
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    Douglas Alpenstock wrote:Sometimes public land is set aside for a reason. How much of that land is arable by any reasonable standard?



    I would certainly hope that all public policies are enacted for a reason! And regarding farm-ability, that’s a poignant question.  There are nuances to the question that I want to unpack and perhaps re-frame.  

    First, the shear magnitude of what “it” is.  We’re referencing hundreds of millions of acres covering more than a dozen states, with lands larger than whole countries.  A simple “yes” or “no” answer to farm-ability would be painting these lands with too broad of a brush.  We know from our own neighborhoods, backyards (and apartments), with respect to production possibilities, that one patch of soil (or a sunny window) can differ greatly from another patch of dirt (or a window) just a few meters away.  So the permie cliché answer of “it depends” is absolutely warranted at such a massive scale.

    Second, lets consider what constitutes a “reasonable standard”.   Namely, reasonable to whom?  With BLM land, as Mike alluded, we’re mostly looking at desert and steppe climates, and some Mediterranean, too.  Absolutely that is beautiful, and I suspect challenging...to most of us (myself included) with our (my) thinking naturally framed by semi-urban, developed, western, humid temperate climate experiences.   Even my little drawing depicted such thinking.  Unfortunately, it’s such conventional “reasonable standards” on farming practices that can create deserts in the first place.

    Surrounding the immediate BLM area that I’ve had the most contact with, are large areas of conventional agriculture.

    (Aerial picture from wikimedia user "Samboy" from an airplane window.  Salton Sea)

    Such application of what some considered “reasonable” practices unfortunately caused Imperial County to have what some have called California’s worst environmental disaster ever: the polluted, Salton Sea... once a jewel of biodiversity, now increasingly saline, toxic, and anaerobic due to conventional, chemical, erosive agricultural practices.  But yes, generally speaking, areas out west are dusty, sandy, rocky, and sometimes the only “trees” you see are spiky ocotillo plants.  (It’s was a ton of fun to fly through and land a helicopter in, especially at night!)

    Third, the question of it being "arable" is focused only on a single time horizon: the present.  Yes, we’re all preoccupied with the here and now, but what of the past?  The BLM lands are clearly filled with ancient artifacts and knowledge from native inhabitants’ past.  The land was once livable, and filled with culture.  And so what of the future?  The land could be enjoyed again by so many in perpetuity.  It’s sad to think how many are dying just to get into the United States, or how many citizens are in search of a right livelihood and the American Dream, and here we have all these huge tracts of land in need of good stewardship.  No, it certainly wouldn't be fixed and "arable" in one's own lifetime.  But perhaps after seven generations, with permanent and tax-free stewardship by a family/clan/tribe, the land could become lush again.  It's an interesting thought even if it doesn't seem practical.

    Douglas Alpenstock wrote:How much would be lost to the access roads that are needed?



    As much as is needed by those who care to go out and enjoy it.  But with the land being exceptionally popular among 4x4 enthusiasts...I use the term "roads" very loosely.

    Mike Haasl wrote:some would do dumb things with it.



    I concur.  Can't cure stupid.  

    Mike Haasl wrote:Most wouldn't want to travel 2000 miles to get to it



    I won't speak for others.  Maybe most wouldn't go for 5 acres a family.  But maybe some would for 50 acres?  Maybe many would for 500 acres?  Or maybe they wouldn't but their great grandchildren some day would? What is the case now could rapidly change.  And who really knows what technology will create faster transit to marginalized rural areas in the future?  Foot paths eventually became wagon trails, then dotted with settlements, railways then highways.  And then what comes next?  I for one predict that STOVL aircraft will drastically change American commuting ranges within the next 50 years, for instance.

    Moreover, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we don’t know what our climate will become.  It would be wise to not put all our eggs and skills in one climate’s basket.  It would also be wise to practice greening the desert out west now while we still can.  Trees make rain, and with America’s breadbasket in the midwest, and with prevailing winds as they are, an ecological investment in the western scrublands could pay huge dividends for those “fly over states” which feed America, and often the world.  Ecological investments often require political investments via free markets and individuals' cooperation, or via coercive policies and punitive measures.

    So I conclude by saying, we are (or where are) the permaculturalists for these lands!(?)   Permies excel beyond the conventional and “reasonable” standards!  Permies are filled with hopes and dreams and possibilities.   We’ve got our Chapter 11 of the PaDM chock-full of ideas for dryland farming.  We've got Geoff Lawton's prototypes from "Greening the Desert", and our Brad Lancaster taking us to the drylands and beyond.  It only takes one “Elzeard Bouffier” with the right tools and willpower to effect great change in America’s west.  Out of the 331 million residents of the USA, I think there are more than a handful out there.  

    P.s. On a more serious note, while the public servants of BLM may not give you “free” land, they will certainly work with you from an information standpoint, as it is possible for individuals to pool resources into a pro-environmental non-profit to go purchase or lease these lands.
     
    Robert Ray
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    I was involved in BLM land transfer for a piece of property for our local Park and Rec. District. Currently it takes an act of Congress to facilitate the transfer. It takes several years. The western United States are encumbered by water rights and much of the land would be affected by no access to water. In my particular area the BLM land is forest and Oregon has all properties classified for usage, the properties we acquired are EFU (Exclusive Forest Use) so on top of the water access issue the state would be drawn in to determine if a change of zoning would be allowed for agriculture other than forestry. Thirty miles east the land turns to sagebrush and juniper prairie without water rights it would be difficult to have any large grazing numbers, let alone farming. BLM land is the "Commons" of the United States.
     
    Ben Skiba
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    George I just wanted to point something out which you may or may not know.Some of that fed land is reservation as well.The red over four corners looks like it covers almost all of navajo nation.(mind you reservations our "leased" to tribes not owned by)
     
    George Yacus
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    Ben wrote:Some of that fed land is reservation as well.



    Aye.  I didn't include re-designation of federal native land in my per capita calculations, fortunately.  That's a sensitive issue, indeed.  Such land would account for another portion of the 640 million acres of federal land outside of public lands (like BLM, USFS, USFWS, NPS) and military installations and the like.   You had me curious how much federal land is in tribal trust, though.  Here's what I could find on the "Bureau of Indian Affairs" (BIA) FAQ website:

    BIA on their FAQ website wrote:"In the United States there are three types of reserved federal lands:  military, public, and Indian.  A federal Indian reservation is an area of land reserved for a tribe or tribes under treaty or other agreement with the United States, executive order, or federal statute or administrative action as permanent tribal homelands, and where the federal government holds title to the land in trust on behalf of the tribe.

    Approximately 56.2 million acres are held in trust by the United States for various Indian tribes and individuals.  There are approximately 326 Indian land areas in the U.S. administered as federal Indian reservations (i.e., reservations, pueblos, rancherias, missions, villages, communities, etc.). "



    I also learned that aside from federal reservations, there are four other types of Native lands (bold emphasis mine):

    BIA on their FAQ website wrote:

  • Allotted lands, which are remnants of reservations broken up during the federal allotment period of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Although the practice of allotting lands had begun in the eighteenth century, it was put to greater use after the Civil War.  By 1885, over 11,000 patents had been issued to individual Indians under various treaties and laws.  Starting with the General Allotment Act in 1887 (also known as the Dawes Act) until the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, allotments were conveyed to members of affected tribes and held in trust by the federal government.  As allotments were taken out of trust, they became subject to state and local taxation, which resulted in thousands of acres passing out of Indian hands.  Today, 10,059,290.74 million acres of individually owned lands are still held in trust for allotees and their heirs.
  • Restricted status, also known as restricted fee, where title to the land is held by an individual Indian person or a tribe and which can only be alienated or encumbered by the owner with the approval of the Secretary of the Interior because of limitations contained in the conveyance instrument pursuant to federal law.
  • State Indian reservations, which are lands held in trust by a state for an Indian tribe.  With state trust lands title is held by the state on behalf of the tribe and the lands are not subject to state property tax.  They are subject to state law, however.  State trust lands stem from treaties or other agreements between a tribal group and the state government or the colonial government(s) that preceded it.

    American Indian and Alaska Native tribes, businesses, and individuals may also own land as private property.  In such cases, they are subject to state and local laws, regulations, codes, and taxation.


  • And that brings up the great, underlying question I am hoping to make:

    Is Federal paternalism with respect to land ownership and use really worth it, or are there better options worth pursuing?  

    What do citizens think:  
    A) Is Uncle Sam the wisest (most productive, ecologically sound, freest, and most financially sustainable) entity to be in charge of all this public land?  Or...
    B) Is he too busy with so many other national crises, that he will never be able to make this land more ecologically beautiful and productive?  Would states, towns, local tribes, and individuals perform better?  If so, how and when will they (you) get their (your) chance?
     
    Stacy Witscher
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    My property has BLM land on two sides. There is no access to this land without crossing private land. And one side is a designated calving area.

    While some areas of BLM land might be useful for homesteading, lots of it just isn't. My property is marginal for homesteading. I'm willing to work with it, but most people I know, other than permies, think I'm nuts. No water rights, off-grid, very rocky soil, little flat land, not easy living.

    But the land isn't really managed by BLM, they don't come out here. It just exists without private ownership. It belongs to the bears, cougars, deer, elk and other wildlife that live there, and I'm fine with that.
     
    leila hamaya
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    i think about similar things, some thought experiments.

    it is true that some of that held in common land in close proximity to population centers could be converted to small landholdings, available for homesteading like in the old days. maybe smells more like private property than just "homesteading" legally, where as long as a person was using it, living on it, improving it and developing it some years later it became theirs free and clear.

    but emphasize SOME of the land which is now held in common, i agree with the previous poster saying it would be good for most of it to be kept in forest, but perhaps there could be more access and use of that common land, and for sure no one should have to pay for camping on our common land.i definitely never would, i have spent many weeks squatting glamping out in the national parks forest, for free...but i know a lot of people will just pay at like...the specific campground spots.

    there's a general paradigm of total preservation as being responsible and *best for the forest*...but this underlying ideaology is flawed, IMO...it is healthy interaction and relationship between humans and the forest, respectful use of the forest and it's offerings- that is what's best for the forest. this is congruent with the native ideologies around this - if the humans ignore the land, it suffers, and it's and its our job to tend and also USE the forest and what it gives.. and so instead of "preservation" this total hands off type stance is actually not as obvious or as honorable as it seems...but in a way is humans turning their back on the forest. all of this...in loose support of your idea...possibly if designed well, with very low population density and quite spread out...their could be some interesting homesteading/woodsy people community projects with free land...if some kind of new homesteading laws could be made.

    a good way might be instead for the government to obtain lots of abandoned/tax sales/auction/ etc properties...and instead of auctioning these - give them away to any who wants them...for taking over the property taxes and improving them. or additionally...the government could seek to obtain lots of already developed properties and offer them for free and take over property taxes...to see them revitalized, to eliminate homelessness, and to boost the economy.
     
    leila hamaya
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    a more edgy additional BLM sucks. their idea of managing the land involves taxpayers footing the bill to build roads so logging companies can rape our forests for profit.
    so i dont see how we could go much worse, worth exploring how we could overhaul or eliminate BLM....collectively manage what's left of our commons, if there could be better modals of healthy interactions, respectful use instead of exploitation.... and being able to harvest from the forest.
    having some different areas for experiemental communities within this land...i could see some real net positives from this.
     
    T Simpson
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    I did some calculations a while back and if you divided the total habitable land mass of the earth between the population everyone could each get ~5 acres....Dibs on any volcanos..
     
    George Yacus
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    T Simpson wrote:I did some calculations a while back and if you divided the total habitable land mass of the earth between the population everyone could each get ~5 acres....Dibs on any volcanos..



    Haha!  I think you're on to something good there. If you get a volcano in a remote island chain, who knows, maybe 200 years from now, your property will have doubled in size and created all sorts of fancy geothermally heated natural swimming pools for posterity to enjoy?

    5 habitable acres per person concerns me a little from a long term sustainability perspective when thinking about population growth.  For a system to be truly sustainable, it has to save or yield more energy than it consumes.  So if, on average, each citizen takes more than 5 acres worth of living capital and energy to sustain themselves, then we'll constantly have to expand to and rob from other systems to keep going (oceans, desert or wilderness, other lands).  It kind of reminds me of Plato basically arguing that war comes about between states because people don't want to live on veggies alone, so other people's land is needed for meat.

    Leila wrote:"if the humans ignore the land, it suffers, and it's and its our job to tend and also USE the forest and what it gives.. "



    Exactly.  Someday, perhaps in my old age, I'd love to look back and read a dozen unique stories of how this American desert slowly became transformed into a home for all, an ecological oasis, simply because it was married to families, individuals, and groups who believed it could actually happen.
     
    Abraham Palma
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    Between "Federal government decides what to do with the land" and "lone permie decides on its own lot", there's a full range of options.

    First, you have local governments, which may be better than federal since they will consider local variables, or may not.
    Then, you have co-ops, intentional communities and non profit organisations. Take a group of 10 to 20 permies to manage a 50 ha land (100 acres?), that's big enough to make the changes that make sense for the whole area. They are local enough to learn the land specifics and design appropriate strategies, they are numbered enough as to not let one crazy idea ruin everything. Maybe some sort of qualification might be required to apply to the cooperative, so every cooperativist is an asset to the enterprise.
    You have the occasional friends that join resources to purchase a piece of land together, then manage a part of it on their own.

    I'm volunteering in a communtity garden, and the experience is quite positive when I receive support from the other gardeners. This way, I'm given the opportunity to work in a 2 acre (800 sq m) land, not just in a tiny allotment of 10 sq meters. I didn't have to purchase all the tools that I need, only a few, since we share most of them, if the hoe is being used, I look for another thing to do that does not require the hoe. Since this is volunteer work, we don't complaint about people not making their share, but I know cooperatives can work just by scheduling and assigning tasks when the manager is skilled. Cooperatives aren't very competitive in newly founded or very dynamic markets (common people lack the kind of enterprising mindset required for that), but in mature markets (like farming) they work just fine.

    Before the green revolution, in Spain 2,5 ha worked land was required per person to live. This included food, clothes, buildings and other commodities required for a XIXc lifestyle, including support for ammenities and specialized work. Back then, 80% of the population were farmers. That means that every farmer had to work on 6 to 10 ha (10 to 25 acres) to support their families and non farmers. Most of them didn't possess anything, they were just hired where and when needed, and had to travel long distances in search of work. A cooperative formed by 10 skilled permies should be able to manage at least 100 acres and still be able to support the country with taxes, get children education, healthcare and all the feats of true wealth.
     
    Ralph Sluder
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     Sound like a nice concept but...
    I live back in the woods between 2 of those red spots, not much land available keeping me isolated.  When a piece of land near me (relatively near me) is sold, folks seem to cut out all the trees for those big lawns. Put up big fences to keep out all the wild animals.
    Kill of all those snakes and pesky turtles that dig holes in their lawns. Spay those poisons to keep weeds ad bugs out of those pretty green lawns. They want the roads paved too.  They then want more people to move to the area so they will have shopping centers and restaurants, movie theaters etc... they don't like the smells from the local farmers hogs and cattle.  roosters are too noisy.... I have lived long enough to know that most people are takers... They buy organic food then dump their used engine oil around the fence. Maybe we should let this land set there unused by our industrialized society until "we the people" grow up a little.
    gift
     
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