Congress Establishes the Public Land Law Review Commission

At the urging of Representative Wayne Aspinall, Congress authorized the creation of a commission that was to engage in a comprehensive review of federal land policy and recommend revisions to that policy. Like similar commissions that preceded it, the Public Land Law Review Commission came to conclusions that were largely ignored by the nation’s lawmakers.

Summary of Event

By the early 1960’s, the federal government controlled more than 750 million acres of land, about one-third of the total area of the United States. The majority of this land is located in eleven Western states and in Alaska. In some of these states, the land is managed by federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and the National Park Service. For example, 95 percent of Alaska and 86 percent of Nevada is managed by federal agencies. On September 19, 1964, Congress established the Public Land Law Review Commission (PLLRC) to undertake a comprehensive policy review of all federal lands except Indian reservations. The law authorizing the commission was allowed to expire and the commission itself ceased to exist on December 31, 1970. Environmental policy, U.S.;federal land
Public Land Law Review Commission
[kw]Congress Establishes the Public Land Law Review Commission (Sept. 19, 1964-Dec. 31, 1970)
[kw]Commission, Congress Establishes the Public Land Law Review (Sept. 19, 1964-Dec. 31, 1970)
[kw]Public Land Law Review Commission, Congress Establishes the (Sept. 19, 1964-Dec. 31, 1970)
Environmental policy, U.S.;federal land
Public Land Law Review Commission
[g]North America;Sept. 19, 1964-Dec. 31, 1970: Congress Establishes the Public Land Law Review Commission[08210]
[g]United States;Sept. 19, 1964-Dec. 31, 1970: Congress Establishes the Public Land Law Review Commission[08210]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Sept. 19, 1964-Dec. 31, 1970: Congress Establishes the Public Land Law Review Commission[08210]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Sept. 19, 1964-Dec. 31, 1970: Congress Establishes the Public Land Law Review Commission[08210]
[c]Environmental issues;Sept. 19, 1964-Dec. 31, 1970: Congress Establishes the Public Land Law Review Commission[08210]
[c]Natural resources;Sept. 19, 1964-Dec. 31, 1970: Congress Establishes the Public Land Law Review Commission[08210]
Aspinall, Wayne
Johnson, Lyndon B.
[p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;environmental policy

Congress had passed many laws to govern these public lands. There were about 3,700 individual statutes and executive orders dealing with public lands, many of them inconsistent or outdated. The federal government had never agreed upon a comprehensive public-lands strategy, and the result was a confusing policy tangle.

The decision to establish the commission was part of a political compromise tied to the Wilderness Act Wilderness Act (1964) of 1964. Conservation interests had attempted to pass a wilderness bill beginning in 1956. Sixty-five bills were introduced between 1956 and 1964. Twenty of them passed either the House of Representatives or the Senate, but no bill passed both houses of Congress until 1964. As chairman of the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs , Representative Wayne Aspinall of Colorado had the power to block consideration of wilderness legislation. As part of a compromise package of bills, Aspinall agreed to release the 1964 wilderness bill in exchange for establishment of a comprehensive review of federal land policy.

Aspinall was particularly interested in getting Congress to assert its constitutional authority over the public lands. Since the time of Benjamin Harrison, Congress had often delegated to the president its authority to withdraw public-domain lands from entry under the homestead laws in order to establish national forests, national monuments, and grazing districts. In the early 1960’s, presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson were particularly active in pursuing conservation initiatives on the public lands, and Aspinall and other development-oriented westerners believed that Congress should take the lead in federal land policy.

Once established by law, the commission began its study in 1965. Six members of the House of Representatives, six U.S. senators, and six persons appointed by the president from outside the federal government made up the commission. Aspinall was elected chairman of the commission. During the first year, the commission appointed an advisory committee of twenty-five persons who represented interest groups that used the federal lands. The commission also asked each of the fifty governors to name a representative to the commission.

In the first years of its existence, the commission spent most of its time holding public meetings around the country and establishing an impressive research agenda. Most of the research reports were published in the late 1960’s or in 1970. While there are many titles, two are particularly important and useful for research on the public lands. History of Public Land Law Development
History of Public Land Law Development (Gates) (1968), by Paul Gates, a professor at Cornell University, remains one of the most comprehensive and useful books on the public lands. The Digest of Public Land Laws
Digest of Public Land Laws (government report) (1968) gives a synopsis of some 3,700 statutes passed by Congress that affect federal lands.

After completing its research, the commission made 137 recommendations dealing with the conservation and development of federal lands. The commission supported a system of comprehensive land-use planning and classification, including disposal of some federal lands to private ownership. The commission recommended establishing a system of “dominant-use” management rather than the current “multiple-use” system. Dominant use would identify certain areas as the most productive for timber, forage, minerals, or recreation, and managers would give these resources preference over other uses. Under the system of multiple-use management, most federal lands are managed for the combination of uses that best meets public needs.

The commission recommended that only Congress should have the authority to designate public lands for special purposes, such as national forests or national monuments, limiting the power of the president under current law. The commission also recommended strengthening environmental protection requirements on federal lands.

Timber and rangeland resources were treated differently by the commission. It argued for accelerating timber management based on economic efficiency but suggested that grazing policy should combine economic efficiency criteria with flexibility. The commission also suggested that grazing fees should be based on fair market value and that nongrazing uses should be controlled in areas where grazing was the dominant use.

The commission suggested a comprehensive revision of federal mining laws, including exploration contracts and increased patent and royalty fees. The commission also recommended that the federal government charge a fee for recreation, hunting, and fishing on federal lands. It recommended that the federal government pay money to local governments in lieu of taxes, and that the U.S. Forest Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, be merged with the Department of the Interior to create a department of natural resources. Congressional oversight of public lands would be placed in one committee in each house of Congress.


The Public Land Law Review Commission of 1964 to 1970 was actually the fourth congressional commission on public lands. The first commission was established by Congress in 1879 during the Rutherford Hayes administration. President Theodore Roosevelt established a second commission in 1903, and President Herbert Hoover convened a third in 1930. All four of these commissions had one thing in common: Their recommendations were largely delayed or ignored by Congress and the president. The PLLRC report of 1970 is an example of this phenomenon, and the reasons it had so little impact are instructive.

There was no great public outcry for a review of public lands in the early 1960’s. The PLLRC was Representative Aspinall’s plan, and his position as chairman of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee gave him the leverage to implement it. Active participation and support for the commission were largely limited to interest groups that represented commodities such as timber, mining, and grazing. Many of the recommendations that were adopted represented the views of these development interests. The conservation community was occupied by the initial implementation of the Wilderness Act and had little time or interest in the broader questions of the public lands.

Several public-lands scholars have also pointed out that many of the commission’s recommendations were internally inconsistent. For example, timber production and grazing were treated quite differently, despite the fact that both involve renewable commodities produced on public lands. Most important, the PLLRC report suffered from poor timing. By 1970, Congress had recognized the power of the environmental movement and had begun a new era of passing laws to protect the environment. A development-oriented public-lands report was inconsistent with the new mood in Congress and the country. Several popular magazines decried the commission’s recommendations, suggesting that they served development interests at the cost of conservation.

While most of the commission’s recommendations were ignored, there were at least three identifiable areas where the commission had some impact: local government finance, reorganization, and the beginnings of reform of the “hardrock” mining laws. Because the federal government is immune from state and local taxes, states and counties with large areas of residual public-domain lands had considerable expenses providing services such as law enforcement to the federal lands. National forests have provided a portion of their receipts to local governments for schools and roads. Grazing districts also provided a portion of grazing fee receipts to state and local governments, but these funds usually failed to cover the costs of the services provided.

In most local governments, property taxes are the primary method of raising revenue. Because the federal government did not pay property taxes, many rural Western governments were faced with financial pressures because of their narrow private-property tax base. The commission recommended that the federal government adopt a policy of making payments “in lieu of taxes.” In 1976, Congress passed the Payments in Lieu of Taxes Act Payments in Lieu of Taxes Act (1976) (PILT), which supplements the revenue-sharing programs provided largely from timber, grazing, and leasable mineral receipts.

Reorganization of the Interior Department had been proposed in the 1930’s in the Franklin Roosevelt administration, but it had resulted in an intense dispute between Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service and later governor of Pennsylvania. In the Nixon administration, the secretaries of agriculture and the interior opposed the merger. One important result of the stalemate was the development of the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as an independent executive agency outside the traditional cabinet structure.

The seeds of mining-law reform were sown in the Public Land Law Review Commission’s recommendations. The fact that it took twenty-four years for Congress to give serious consideration to revising the General Mining Act General Mining Act (1872) of 1872 (sometimes called the Hardrock Mining Act) is a testimony to the power of interest groups to influence public-lands policy.

Under the law, minerals such as gold or copper that occur on federal lands are available to anyone who discovers and claims them. Mineral-bearing public lands can be converted to private ownership (patented) for $2.50 to $5.00 per acre. The federal government does not receive any royalty for the minerals produced. The PLLRC recommended substantial reforms in the 1872 law, including a more organized system of exploration and leasing, and the imposition of fair market value royalty payments comparable to royalties paid for minerals on private lands.

Revision of the General Mining Law is not directly attributable to the commission’s recommendations. The revision, however, illustrates a common pattern in the use of legislative commissions and congressional stewardship of the public lands. Each of the four commissions made substantive recommendations for reform. Selective implementation of these reforms often required twenty or more years. For example, the 1879 Public Lands Commission recommended classification of public lands based on their ability to support agriculture, timber production, and grazing. The recommendation was not implemented until the Reclamation (Newlands) Act passed in 1902. President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1903 Public Lands Commission recommended the establishment of grazing districts. Congress implemented the recommendation in 1934 with the Taylor Grazing Act. Environmental policy, U.S.;federal land
Public Land Law Review Commission

Further Reading

  • Dana, Samuel T., and Sally K. Fairfax. Forest and Range Policy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980. A rich chronological view of the evolution of U.S. conservation and environmental policy.
  • Gates, Paul W. History of Public Land Law Development. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1968. Gates offers, by far, the most thorough treatment to date of public-lands policy from the colonial to the modern periods.
  • Hays, Samuel P. Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959. The classic historical assessment of the progressive conservation movement at the turn of the century. Hays covers the 1903 Public Lands Commission in some detail.
  • Peffer, E. Louise. The Closing of the Public Domain. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1951. The principal and authoritative history of the public domain in the first half of the twentieth century. Peffer reviews the 1879 Public Lands Commission, the 1903 Commission, and the Hoover Commission.
  • Public Land Law Review Commission. Digest of Public Land Laws. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1968. The digest briefs 3,700 items, including amendments beginning in 1792 through the Eighty-ninth Congress. Useful for locating laws passed during the period. Gives the reader an understanding of the fractured nature of public-lands policy.
  • _______. One Third of the Nation’s Land. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1970. Provides a background and summary of the commission’s recommendations. Extensive appendixes report the results of a broad research program.
  • Sturgeon, Stephen C. The Politics of Western Water: The Congressional Career of Wayne Aspinall. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2002. Presents a biographical history of Wayne Aspinall, a prodevelopment Democratic congressmember from Colorado, who was deeply involved in wilderness, environmental, and preservationist legislation in the 1960’s. Aspinall had been opposed to the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Truman Creates the Bureau of Land Management

Great Swamp Wildlife Refuge Is Dedicated

Congress Passes the Water Resources Research Act

Wilderness Act Is Passed

Alaskan Oil Discovery Sparks Controversy

Wild and Scenic Rivers and Trails System Acts Are Passed

National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 Is Signed

Environmental Protection Agency Is Created