Public Lands: Federal and State Power Thereover

Clause 2. The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.


No appropriation of public lands may be made for any purpose except by authority of Congress.306 However, Congress was held to have acquiesced in the long-continued practice of withdrawing land from the public domain by Executive Orders.307 In 1976 Congress enacted legislation that established procedures for withdrawals and that explicitly disclaimed continued acquiescence in any implicit executive withdrawal authority.308 The comprehensive authority of Congress over public lands includes the power to prescribe the times, conditions, and mode of transfer thereof and to designate the persons to whom the transfer shall be made,309 to declare the dignity and effect of titles emanating from the United States,310 to determine the validity of grants which antedate the government’s acquisition of the property,311 to exempt lands acquired under the homestead laws from previously contracted debts,312 to withdraw land from settlement and to prohibit grazing thereon,313 to prevent unlawful occupation of public property and to declare what are nuisances, as affecting such property, and provide for their abatement,314 and to prohibit the introduction of liquor on lands purchased and used for an Indian colony.315 Congress may limit the disposition of the public domain to a manner consistent with its views of public policy. A restriction inserted in a grant of public lands to a municipality which prohibited the grantee from selling or leasing to a private corporation the right to sell or sublet water or electric energy supplied by the facilities constructed on such land was held valid.316

Unanimously upholding a federal law to protect wild-roaming horses and burros on federal lands, the Court restated the applicable principles governing Congress’s power under this clause. It empowers Congress to act as both proprietor and legislature over the public domain; Congress has complete power to make those “needful rules” which in its discretion it determines are necessary. When Congress acts with respect to those lands covered by the clause, its legislation overrides conflicting state laws.317 Absent action by Congress, however, states may in some instances exercise some jurisdiction over activities on federal lands.318

No state may tax public lands of the United States within its borders,319 nor may state legislation interfere with the power of Congress under this clause or embarrass its exercise.320 Thus, by virtue of a Treaty of 1868, according self-government to Navajos living on an Indian Reservation in Arizona, the tribal court, rather than the courts of that state, had jurisdiction over a suit for a debt owed by an Indian resident thereof to a non-Indian conducting a store on the reservation under federal license.321 The question whether title to land that has once been the property of the United States has passed from it must be resolved by the laws of the United States; after title has passed, “that property, like all other property in the state, is subject to the state legislation; so far as that legislation is consistent with the admission that the title passed and vested according to the laws of the United States.”322 In construing a conveyance by the United States of land within a state, the settled and reasonable rule of construction of the state affords a guide in determining what impliedly passes to the grantee as an incident to land expressly granted.323 But a state statute enacted subsequently to a federal grant cannot operate to vest in the state rights that either remained in the United States or passed to its grantee.324

306 United States v. Fitzgerald, 40 U.S. (15 Pet.) 407, 421 (1841). See also California v. Deseret Water, Oil & Irrigation Co., 243 U.S. 415 (1917); Utah Power & Light Co. v. United States, 243 U.S. 389 (1917).

307 Sioux Tribe v. United States, 316 U.S. 317 (1942); United States v. Midwest Oil Co., 236 U.S. 459, 469 (1915).

308 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, Pub. L. 94–579, § 704(a); 90 Stat. 2792 (1976).

309 Gibson v. Chouteau, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 92, 99 (1872); see also Irvine v. Marshall, 61 U.S. (20 How.) 558 (1858); Emblem v. Lincoln Land Co., 184 U.S. 660, 664 (1902).

310 Bagnell v. Broderick, 38 U.S. (13 Pet.) 436, 450 (1839). See also Field v. Seabury, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 323, 332 (1857).

311 Tameling v. United States Freehold & Immigration Co., 93 U.S. 644, 663 (1877). See also Maxwell Land-Grant Case, 121 U.S. 325, 366 (1887).

312 Ruddy v. Rossi, 248 U.S. 104 (1918).

313 Light v. United States, 220 U.S. 523 (1911). See also The Yosemite Valley Case, 82 U.S. (15 Wall.) 77 (1873).

314 Camfield v. United States, 167 U.S. 518, 525 (1897). See also Jourdan v. Barrett, 45 U.S. (4 How.) 169 (1846); United States v. Waddell, 112 U.S. 76 (1884).

315 United States v. McGowan, 302 U.S. 535 (1938).

316 United States v. City of San Francisco, 310 U.S. 16 (1940).

317 Kleppe v. New Mexico, 426 U.S. 529 (1976).

318 California Coastal Comm’n v. Granite Rock Co., 480 U.S. 572 (1987).

319 Van Brocklin v. Tennessee, 117 U.S. 151 (1886); cf. Wilson v. Cook, 327 U.S. 474 (1946).

320 Gibson v. Chouteau, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 92, 99 (1872). See also Irvine v. Marshall, 61 U.S. (20 How.) 558 (1858); Emblem v. Lincoln Land Co., 184 U.S. 660, 664 (1902).

321 Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. 217 (1959).

322 Wilcox v. McConnel, 38 U.S. (13 Pet.) 498, 517 (1839).

323 Oklahoma v. Texas, 258 U.S. 574, 595 (1922).

324 United States v. Oregon, 295 U.S. 1, 28 (1935).