Mineral Act Regulates Public Lands Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After ten years of discussion and debate, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, which involved the U.S. government in managing the nation’s mineral resources.

Summary of Event

On February 25, 1920, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Mineral Leasing Act, giving statutory effect to the policy of leasing government lands containing mineral deposits such as coal, gas, oil, oil shale, phosphates, potassium, and sodium to private parties for development. The law did not satisfy all Americans. Many westerners, businesspeople, and conservatives preferred a policy of permanent alienation or sale of government lands to private parties without conditions. Some conservationists and Progressives desired that the government not only own the public lands but also conserve and develop the resources contained within them. After more than a century of uncontrolled development and exploitation, however, the act represented a victory for conservation. Mineral Leasing Act (1920) Conservation;natural resources Natural resources, conservation [kw]Mineral Act Regulates Public Lands (Feb. 25, 1920) [kw]Act Regulates Public Lands, Mineral (Feb. 25, 1920) [kw]Public Lands, Mineral Act Regulates (Feb. 25, 1920) [kw]Lands, Mineral Act Regulates Public (Feb. 25, 1920) Mineral Leasing Act (1920) Conservation;natural resources Natural resources, conservation [g]United States;Feb. 25, 1920: Mineral Act Regulates Public Lands[05070] [c]Environmental issues;Feb. 25, 1920: Mineral Act Regulates Public Lands[05070] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Feb. 25, 1920: Mineral Act Regulates Public Lands[05070] [c]Natural resources;Feb. 25, 1920: Mineral Act Regulates Public Lands[05070] Wilson, Woodrow [p]Wilson, Woodrow;Mineral Leasing Act Daniels, Josephus Lane, Franklin K. Smoot, Reed La Follette, Robert M. Lenroot, Irvine Luther Pinchot, Gifford Walsh, Thomas J. Fall, Albert B.

Prior to the twentieth century, federal lands were generally sold for nominal fees or given away outright. The General Mining Act of 1872 General Mining Act (1872) turned public-land mineral deposits of gold, silver, and copper over to developers at a minimal cost with few restrictions by the federal government. Lands containing coal deposits were treated in much the same way. In the early twentieth century, however, as some observers began to recognize that the exhaustion of the nation’s vast lands and resources was a possibility, a conservation movement emerged during the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt, Theodore [p]Roosevelt, Theodore;conservation The movement did not include all Americans, however. Many people in the West, for example, claimed that conservationists tended to be easterners whose lands were already developed and who were thus enforcing a double standard on the West, denying opportunities to the citizens of those states. Others argued that government conservation policies were a violation of the rights of property and individualism as set forth in the Declaration of Independence; some complained that government conservation was paternalistic and autocratic.

In 1906, Roosevelt proposed a coal leasing bill to Congress. In order to protect the public interest and increase government revenues, the government would retain ownership of the land but would lease it to private interests for a royalty. Some critics argued that the proposal was a socialistic violation of states’ rights. Others, such as Senator Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin, wanted tighter legislative controls, fearing that a loose leasing law might result in increased private monopoly of the nation’s resources. No leasing law resulted, but Roosevelt and his successors William Howard Taft Taft, William Howard [p]Taft, William Howard;oil reserves and Woodrow Wilson began withdrawing certain government lands containing mineral deposits from the public domain. By 1916, more than 140 million acres had been set aside, including fifty oil reserves totaling more than 5.5 million acres. To many private interests, leasing became a viable approach for developing the mineral resources on federal lands, both to generate income and to preserve and develop the nation’s resources.

It was oil rather than coal, however, that became the focus of the debate. Oil was destined to be the energy source of the future, and part of the oil debate revolved around naval power and U.S. defense policy. In 1912, Taft created two naval oil reserves in California’s San Joaquin Valley: one at Elk Hills and one at Buena Vista Hills. Taft’s successor, Woodrow Wilson, established a third reserve in 1915 in Wyoming, at Teapot Dome. Wilson’s secretary of the interior, Franklin K. Lane, a Progressive from California, supported leasing for oil and other minerals. Lane’s major opponent in the administration, Josephus Daniels, the secretary of the Navy and also a Progressive, was a strong advocate of oil reserves for exclusive naval use and was critical of leasing.

Most conservationists, notably Gifford Pinchot, Roosevelt’s chief forester, advocated the concept of leasing. Several leasing bills were introduced during the Wilson years. The leasing debate was a regional issue rather than a political one at that time. Scott Ferris, Ferris, Scott an Oklahoma Democrat, and Irvine Luther Lenroot, a Wisconsin Republican, led the leasing campaign in the House. Daniels was opposed to any leasing bill that would alienate public oil lands, particularly those set aside for the U.S. Navy. Progressives such as Idaho’s Senator William E. Borah Borah, William E. argued that natural resources should be maintained and operated by the government for the people. Others, such as William King King, William of Utah, wanted no government conservation program of any kind. Secretary Lane was caught in the middle. He admired the private businesspeople who had built the United States, and he was sympathetic to those who claimed that they had established a stake in the withdrawn oil reserves. He also wished to open Alaska to development, and his waterpower sites policy came under attack for lacking sufficient government controls. In 1916, Pinchot called Lane an anticonservationist. Pinchot did not believe that administrators should be narrowly bound by restrictive regulations, but he believed that Lane had acted unwisely.

Wilson’s Democrats suffered defeat in the 1918 congressional elections. Losses were particularly severe in the West, and in February, 1919, Wilson, risking the wrath of conservationists, gave his support to a mineral leasing bill that included both leasing and sale provisions. Many conservationists were dismayed. The naval reserves were not protected, and the national forests, Grand Canyon National Park, Grand Canyon National Park and Mount Olympus National Monument Mount Olympus National Monument were opened to prospectors. The bill easily passed the House by a vote of 233 to 109, but La Follette kept the bill from coming to a vote in the Senate, and it died when the congressional session ended in March, 1919.

With Republican control of Congress, the long campaign for a leasing bill came to fruition. The Republican leadership needed to appear constructive, particularly after the party’s opposition to the Treaty of Versailles and Wilson’s League of Nations. Westerners and conservatives, both Democrats and Republicans, worried that without a leasing bill, government operation might result. Utah’s Reed Smoot, chairman of the Senate Public Lands Committee, preferred no government involvement but recognized the political need to compromise if any development was to occur. With the prodding of the Pinchot bloc from the outside and the actions of Lenroot (who had moved from the House to the Senate in 1917) within the Senate committee, the Smoot bill evolved during the summer of 1919 in a manner pleasing to conservationists. Unlike the previous bill, it was entirely a leasing bill, with no sales or alienation alternatives. The Grand Canyon and Mount Olympus were removed from coal and other mineral exploration. La Follette led the fight on the Senate floor and supported the bill as an improvement over previous bills, although he wished for additional controls over possible monopolies and unfair prices.

The bill was passed by the Senate in September, 1919, was passed by the House at the end of October, and was signed into law by Wilson on February 25, 1920. The Mineral Leasing Act applied to oil and gas as well as to coal, sodium, and phosphates. Prospecting was allowed on unproven lands, some preference was given to those with earlier claims, and each state was allocated 37.5 percent of resource royalties from lands within its borders. The secretary of the interior was given considerable responsibility for administering the new law.


The Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 established the principle that the government would retain ownership of the public lands containing mineral deposits and would lease those lands and their resources to private developers. In so doing, the federal government became permanently involved in managing the mineral resources of the nation. By the 1980’s, more than 100 million acres of public lands were under oil and gas lease, and approximately 70 million tons of coal were mined on federal lands. The people’s interests were to be protected, and preservation and planning would be possible—or at least so it seemed in 1920.

In operation, the mineral leasing law proved to be controversial, and within a few years it led to one of the most famous scandals in U.S. history. The early twentieth century Progressives trusted the advice of supposedly apolitical experts. Objective in their assessments, such experts, according to Progressives, would provide the necessary scientific knowledge to elected or appointed administrators, who were given broad leeway to implement the laws. In practice, however, experts’ opinions often differed on specific points, such as whether the naval reserves could intentionally or inadvertently be drained by outside drilling. During debate on the Smoot bill, La Follette proposed an amendment to the bill to exclude the naval reserves from the leasing bill and, citing expert opinion, denied that separate naval reserves would be damaged by nearby drilling. Montana’s Democratic senator Thomas J. Walsh, who favored western development, claimed that his expert, Edward L. Doheny, Doheny, Edward L. predicted that the naval reserves would be drained and thus should be developed and the oil stored or sold. La Follette’s amendment failed, but in June, 1920, in an amendment to another bill, the naval reserves were made the responsibility of the secretary of the Navy.

Administrators who were given the broad discretion that the Progressives deemed necessary did not always administer the laws as some had anticipated. New Mexico’s Republican senator Albert B. Fall, the archetypal westerner distrustful of federal conservation policies, opposed leasing and any other governmental restrictions on development. Gifford Pinchot hoped to be chosen as the new secretary of the interior after the Republican victory in the 1920 presidential election, but President Warren G. Harding Harding, Warren G. [p]Harding, Warren G.;Teapot Dome scandal selected Fall for the position. Republican conservationists were concerned, but they hoped for the best. They received the worst. In May, 1921, Fall persuaded Harding’s secretary of the Navy, Edwin Denby, Denby, Edwin to turn the naval reserves over to Fall’s interior department. This was legal but was antithetical to the spirit of the mineral leasing legislation. Fall then surreptitiously but legally leased Elk Hills to the Doheny oil interests and Teapot Dome to Harry F. Sinclair. Sinclair, Harry F. When Fall went to jail years later, it was not because he had violated provisions of the Mineral Leasing Act but because he had received financial and other compensation from Doheny and Sinclair.

There were several paradoxes in the Teapot Dome affair. First, the scandal was misnamed, as the Teapot Dome reserves were less important than those at California’s Elk Hills. Second, the original justification for establishing the reserves was to offset a perceived shortage of oil, a scenario that did not materialize. Third, although La Follette was one of the chief figures in exposing the Teapot Dome scandal, the primary investigator was Senator Walsh, who had been sympathetic to western developers during Wilson’s administration. Senator Lenroot, one of the conservationist architects of the Smoot bill, defended the Harding administration’s conservation decisions. When the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 was passed, it was viewed as a conservation measure; however, the scandal demonstrated that, in the hands of a willful administrator opposed to the spirit of conservation, the act’s outcome could be radically different.

The intent of the law, at least as far as conservationists were concerned, was better served by the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt, Franklin D. [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;conservation New Deal liberals were not the direct political heirs of the earlier Progressives, but conservation was a common concern, and Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes, Ickes, Harold was a former Progressive Republican. Ickes was a committed conservationist, and during his tenure he conscientiously supervised the mineral leasing program through the General Land Office, as well as through the Bureau of Mines, the U.S. Fuel Administration, the Bituminous Coal Commission, the U.S. Coal Commission, and the Federal Oil Conservation Board.

The battle between conservationists and developers continued. The Wilderness Act of 1964 Wilderness Act (1964) established 9.1 million acres as wilderness areas largely exempt from mining and drilling. At the same time, the nation needed additional amounts of oil and other resources, needs that were increasingly met by imports. In the 1970’s, a movement developed in the West to give greater say to states and local areas in the use of federal public lands and resources. Many conservationists reacted by demanding revisions in the Mineral Leasing Act that would place a higher priority on environmental considerations. Conservationists warned about the threat of monopoly and price fixing, noting that 70 percent of the coal leases were held by only fifteen corporations. The oil embargoes instituted by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), however, added another justification for additional development: The nation’s survival seemed to require it.

By the end of the 1970’s, western demands, known popularly as the Sagebrush Rebellion, Sagebrush Rebellion were paralleling those of the years prior to 1920. “Sagebrush Rebels” claimed that federal government policies were infringing on needed development. Most disputants agreed that the government would retain ownership of the public lands and lease them to private parties for development, but there remained the contentious questions of how much, how fast, by whom, and at what environmental cost such development should be undertaken. These issues would necessarily be fought out in the political arena by each generation. The Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 established the principle of continued government ownership of mineral lands, but enactment of the law did not end the debate about actual use of those lands. Mineral Leasing Act (1920) Conservation;natural resources Natural resources, conservation

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bates, J. Leonard. The Origins of Teapot Dome. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1963. Definitive work traces the history of the mineral leasing program and examines the role of the program in the Teapot Dome scandal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cawley, R. McGreggor. Federal Land, Western Anger: The Sagebrush Rebellion and Environmental Politics. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993. Valuable study discusses the history of the West’s frustration with the federal government’s public-land policies, including the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 and the Sagebrush Rebellion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, Charles, ed. Western Public Lands and Environmental Politics. 2d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2001. Collection of essays examines relationships among political organizations, economic conditions, interest groups, and other factors that influence public-land policy in the western United States. Includes tables, figures, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hays, Samuel P. Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency. 1959. Reprint. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999. Seminal work examines the origins of the conservation movement’s wise-land-use philosophy as exemplified by conservationists such as Gifford Pinchot.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Char. Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism. Washington, D.C.: Shearwater Books, 2004. First full-length biography of Pinchot in forty years draws on previously unavailable materials to illuminate his life and times. Includes notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Noggle, Burl. Teapot Dome: Oil and Politics in the 1920’s. 1965. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. Definitive study of the complexities of the Teapot Dome affair. Briefly discusses the Mineral Leasing Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robbins, Roy M. Our Landed Heritage. 2d ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1976. Revised edition of a classic work about U.S. public lands. Covers the period from 1776 to 1970.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wyant, William K. Westward in Eden: The Public Lands and the Conservation Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. Readable volume relates the story of the American conservation movement from the founding of the nation to the early 1980’s.

Pinchot Becomes Head of the U.S. Forest Service

Roosevelt Withdraws the Grand Canyon from Mining Claims

Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources

National Park Service Is Created

Federal Power Commission Disallows Kings River Dams

Teapot Dome Scandal

Categories: History