Public Lands

American taxpayers share the assets of nearly 650 million acres of land — almost 30% of the land area of the U.S. — which are managed by the federal government and held in trust for the American people. Federally managed public lands include National Parks, National Forests, and National Wildlife Refuges, including the iconic parks Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. 

Federally owned and operated public lands are distributed across the U.S., with the highest concentration in the western states. ‘Public lands’ is an inclusive term that refers to forests, deserts, prairies, and bodies of water — including oceans, rivers, streams, and lakes. Over 90% of this land is administered by four agencies: the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service. The Forest Service is a part of the Department of Agriculture; the others are under the Department of the Interior. Offshore leases are administered by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, also under the Department of the Interior.




The U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and State Fish and Game Departments are examples of public trustee agencies. Trustees are charged with managing the public property assigned to them in order to provide the benefits required by owners and beneficiaries.

The Department of the Interior and the agencies within its jurisdiction oversee public lands and waters, and offer fossil fuels on public lands for development by private and publicly-traded corporations for private profit.




Energy companies can gain access to federally held fossil fuels at a reduced rate — lower than fuels on private or state-held lands. Energy companies with annual revenues of billions of dollars pay nominal fees to public lands agencies through lease bids, rent, and royalties. Corporations can lease public land for oil and gas drilling for as little as two dollars per acre.

Auction Actions

Rainforest Action Network is leading a collaborative effort to take action at every public lands and offshore waters fossil fuel auction. 

The Fifteen Filthiest

Some of the biggest fossil fuel companies — such as Shell, Chevron and BP — control 36% of leased federal land. These “Fifteen Filthiest” dirty energy corporations generate millions of dollars of profit every year by abusing our shared national resources, shaping our environmental future for generations to come. Between them, they’re responsible for a horrific legacy of environmental disasters: offshore oil spills, explosions, pipeline ruptures, and household water contamination, resulting in multi-million dollar settlements.

The system is broken. 

NEWSWEEK: Sweet U.S. Government Land Deals Charge Up Energy Companies: Report

President Obama has the constitutional authority to issue an Executive Order to immediately end the outdated practice of fossil fuel leasing on public lands and offshore waters. With a stroke of his pen, he could stop bankrolling wealthy energy corporations, prevent environmental destruction, preserve the heritage of Indigenous sacred sites, and slow the disastrous effects of climate change. He could keep a staggering 450 billion tons of carbon pollution out of the atmosphere — almost half of all potential emissions from remaining U.S. fossil fuels.

By contrast, the president’s Climate Action Plan, if fully implemented, would keep less than 6 billion tons of carbon out of the air. If President Obama wants a truly lasting climate legacy, he should end fossil fuel leasing on public lands. 

Public Lands, Private Profits

Rainforest Action Network's groundbreaking report, Public Lands, Private Profits, pulls back the curtain on the corporate giveaway of America’s treasured public lands. 

Key takeaways:

  • Scientists agree that in order to stay within the global carbon budget and avoid dangerous warming, a majority of all proven coal, oil, and gas reserves must stay in the ground, and fossil fuel combustion must end by mid-to-late-century.
  • America’s public lands and waters are being given away to some of the wealthiest energy companies in the world for as low as $2 an acre. These companies have long track records of corruption, violation of Indigenous sacred sites, severe health impacts on communities, environmental destruction, evading payments, and jeopardizing the future of our climate.
  • If President Obama wants to establish a truly lasting climate legacy, he can and should issue an executive order to stop leasing for fossil fuels on our public lands and offshore waters.

Read the report