Federal Ownership and the Politics of Visual Representation


This image is a map of the United States showing in red which areas are owned, either on the surface or with regard to subsurface rights, by the federal government.


Creative Commons Licence



Created date

February 7, 2019

Critical Commentary

This image, showing total surface and subsurface federal ownership in the United States, is frequently used in news articles, blog posts, reports, and social media posts, most often paired with anti-federal, anti-monument sentiments. To explore the social life of this image is to dive into the fray of media tactics frequently used in public lands debates, as well as in other domains (e.g. with climate data), in which part of the claim to legitimacy is that the data used to create the image is, in fact, technically accurate. This particular image is exemplary of the way in which some individuals and groups explicitly mark themselves as "playing by the rules" of facts and "correct" information, while also making decisions about how to display the data that may omit some details and highlight others to bolster a desired argument.

The social life of this image is particularly interesting. First, in the bottom righthand corner, the logo for the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management are printed at a very small scale with words unreadable unless digitally zoomed in that say "Produced by the Bureau of Land Management," dated 03/03/05. Thus, at first glance the image appears to coming from a federal agency itself, perhaps adding to perceived legitimacy on audiences' part, as if these anti-federal perspectives are strengthened by using the enemy's own data. However, this image does not appear on any formal government website (e.g. DOI or BLM), and one writer suggests it was originally created by the American Lands Council, a pro-states rights/state managment and pro-private property think tank. If this is the case, the statement in very small letters that the map was produced by the BLM could be following the tactic of displaying information that is technically not false (i.e. the original geodata may have come from that agency) but is misleading. That finding the creator of the image and determining whether the DOI and BLM stamp is a "legitimate" use of the logo is quite difficult highlights the complex media environment in which both interlocutors and researchers are immersed.

The image does significant work in taking data that is "not false" to convey a message that feels not quite true, or at the very least misleading. In alarm-bell red, the map shows surface and subsurface areas owned by the federal government, but does not distinguish between types of federal land or the agencies managing them. These areas could be split up, as done in this USGS map, into which areas are managed by BLM, the forest service, the Department of Defense, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and so on. Thus, while the caption describes the shaded areas as "public lands," the areas include all federal land, including areas like military bases that are federally-owned but hardly public and erases/denies the presence and soveriegnty of Native Nations and their associated reservation lands.

The effect is a sea of red demonstrating an overwhelmingly large area of federal land in the American West. When paired with written arguments, this sea of red is associated with such language as "land grab" and "seize" when describing federal-level management descisions (not ownership changes) and with arguments that such an egregiously large area of land demonstrates a needlessly greedy federal government and that such land, though technically under the federal domain since before many western states achieved statehood, should "revert to the states." Interestingly, the use of language that indicates individuals or government entities stealing land from someone else is pervasive across political positions (e.g. see the lefthand image in this artifact).

While "public lands" may serve as a (supposedly) stable object, the subjects and verbs writers use alongside such images tell much about the rhetorical tactics used to further many public lands positions. Examining the language that is used alongside such images in combination with critical analysis of visual representations of data gets at the conceptual lay of the land across political positions--by what argumentative rules are different actors claim to be playing? How are their definitions of rules purportedly defined by logic and rationality shaped by their aims, values, and interests?

tracing where this image appears allows for examining what langauge is most often paired with it... subjects verbs