Public lands Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Lands owned by a public authority, chiefly the federal government.

After the American Revolution, the Treaty of ParisTreaty of Paris (1783) transferred to the United States all lands held by the British Crown between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. The new government of the United States acquired title to these lands in the 1780’s by assuming the state debts incurred during the Revolution. However, Georgia was slow to transfer, and land speculators bought a large portion of its claims, leading to a case that came before the Supreme Court as Fletcher v. Peck[case]Fletcher v. Peck[Fletcher v. Peck] in 1810. This case enabled the Court to establish its authority over the states in issues involving rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.

Until the end of the nineteenth century, it was governmental policy to transfer public lands to private ownership as soon as a paying customer could be found. In the twentieth century, policy changed, and it was believed that the public interest in such lands could best be secured by retaining them as public property. In United States v. Grimaud[case]Grimaud, United States v.[Grimaud, United States v.] (1911), the authority of the secretary of agriculture to adopt regulations to protect public forests under the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 was challenged, but the Court upheld the constitutionality of the act. In United States v. Midwest Oil Co.[case]Midwest Oil Co., United States v.[Midwest Oil Co., United States v.] (1915), the power of the presidency to withdraw some public land from sale to private individuals was challenged, but the Court upheld the presidential authority.

Fletcher v. Peck

Land grants

Property rights

States’ rights and state sovereignty

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