The federal government owns roughly 28 percent of all surface land in the United States, concentrated in eleven western states and Alaska. This federal estate is ecologically diverse and managed with wide-ranging goals, from designated wilderness, where roads and mechanized equipment are prohibited, to vast oil and gas fields. Public lands, collectively, are all things to all people.

In Our Common Ground, John Leshy provides a comprehensive account of public land law and administration, explaining how Congress, the president, and various federal agencies developed the system of public lands we have today. It is the most expansive treatment since historian Paul Gates's volume History of Public Land Law Development, written for the Public Land Law Commission in 1968, and there is a reason why so few scholars have taken on this challenge. The topic is not merely complex in scale; it is like partially metamorphosed sedimentary rock. The federal...

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