U.S. Congress Secures Lands in the Public Domain

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act declared the intent of the U.S. federal government to retain permanently the remaining public domain and legislatively established the Bureau of Land Management.

Summary of Event

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA) provided congressional recognition of the authority of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in managing the public lands. The law also officially established a policy of permanently retaining the remaining public domain lands. Passage of the act was marked by considerable negotiation between conservation, livestock grazing, and mining interest groups. Until the act passed, the BLM had rarely had the support or interest of conservation groups. Federal Land Policy and Management Act (1976)
Land-use policy, U.S.[Land use policy, U.S.]
Bureau of Land Management, U.S.
[kw]U.S. Congress Secures Lands in the Public Domain (Oct. 21, 1976)
[kw]Congress Secures Lands in the Public Domain, U.S. (Oct. 21, 1976)
[kw]Lands in the Public Domain, U.S. Congress Secures (Oct. 21, 1976)
[kw]Public Domain, U.S. Congress Secures Lands in the (Oct. 21, 1976)
Federal Land Policy and Management Act (1976)
Land-use policy, U.S.[Land use policy, U.S.]
Bureau of Land Management, U.S.
[g]North America;Oct. 21, 1976: U.S. Congress Secures Lands in the Public Domain[02590]
[g]United States;Oct. 21, 1976: U.S. Congress Secures Lands in the Public Domain[02590]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 21, 1976: U.S. Congress Secures Lands in the Public Domain[02590]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Oct. 21, 1976: U.S. Congress Secures Lands in the Public Domain[02590]
Jackson, Scoop
Melcher, John
Gregg, Frank

Because of the circumstances of its creation from the ruins of the Grazing Service Grazing Service, U.S. in 1946, the BLM lacked a strong legislative mandate. Over the years, Congress had passed more than thirty-five hundred individual laws dealing with the public lands, and there was no coherent management policy to guide the bureau. Early in the administration of President John F. Kennedy, Kennedy, John F. the BLM began to seek a series of laws that would modernize the agency’s legislative mandates. The bureau began to draft laws to reform procedures for sale of nonmineral lands. In 1961, the Department of the Interior Department of the Interior, U.S. submitted a legislative proposal to Congress that would reform the land-sale laws, provide basic authority to the BLM to manage the public lands under a multiple-use and sustained-yield philosophy, reform rights-of-way policy, reform mineral policy, and repeal some of the many outdated public domain statutes still on the books.

Additional bills were contemplated, but the department’s efforts were halted when it became apparent that Representative Wayne Aspinall’s Aspinall, Wayne efforts to establish a comprehensive public-lands review commission were likely to succeed. Aspinall had begun to urge establishment of such a commission in the late 1950’s, but his efforts were opposed by the presidential administrations of Dwight D. Eisenhower Eisenhower, Dwight D. and Kennedy. In September, 1964, Congress passed the Public Land Law Review Commission Act, Public Land Law Review Commission Act (1964) the Classification and Multiple Use Act, Classification and Multiple Use Act (1964) and the Public Land Sales Act. Public Land Sales Act (1964) All three were temporary measures.

When the Public Land Law Review Commission Public Land Law Review Commission (PLLRC) finished its work in 1970, it was apparent that there was little political support for many of its recommendations. Nevertheless, commission and House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee chairman Aspinall began the process of drafting a broad law that would enact the commission’s recommendations and apply to all federal multiple-use lands. At the same time, the BLM began to draft an organic act for itself and submitted it to the Senate in 1971. It was not considered by the full Senate and was reintroduced in the ninety-third Congress. The Senate declined to consider the BLM’s own bill and instead passed a similar bill introduced by Senator Scoop Jackson. The House took no action on either bill.

Jackson’s bill offered multiple-use, sustained-yield, and fair market value pricing for commodities as a basis for management of the public lands. It also included language on advisory boards, law-enforcement authority, reform of the 1920 mineral-leasing act, and development of a land-management plan for BLM lands in the California desert. The Jackson bill passed the Senate by a large margin in February, 1976.

The House bill was quite different from the Senate version. Aspinall had been defeated in a primary challenge, and Representative John Melcher of Montana had redrafted the House bill after an extensive series of hearings in the western states. The Melcher bill also included language on grazing fees for BLM and U.S. Forest Service lands and the wild horse and burro issue. Representative John F. Seiberling Seiberling, John F. also introduced a version of the bill that contained many provisions favored by conservation interests.

There were considerable differences within the House Subcommittee on Public Lands over grazing fees, law-enforcement authority, and local government influence on federal land planning. By late 1975, the House efforts had bogged down, and passage of a bill by the full House appeared unlikely. Following passage of the Senate bill in 1976, the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs again took up the bill. The committee passed the bill by a vote of twenty to sixteen, with seven members not voting, reflecting the deeply divided positions of the members and the conservation and development interests. Livestock interests supported the bill because it contained a favorable grazing fee formula, and environmentalists supported the bill because they believed they could later eliminate the fee language and preserve the other elements of the bill. The bill passed the full House by about twenty votes with weak support from the Department of the Interior and conservation interests.

In the conference committee, the House members were still divided over the bill, with representatives Morris K. Udall Udall, Morris K. and Seiberling favoring the Senate version. Four issues were the subjects of critical compromises. Unlike other federal land-management agencies, the BLM had no authority to enforce federal laws on its own lands. In the remote deserts of the West, the bureau was forced to rely on county sheriffs who were often far from the scene of the violations. The compromise version of the FLPMA provided for full law-enforcement authority for the BLM but also required maximum feasible reliance on local law enforcement. In addition, the FLPMA authorized a uniformed desert ranger force for the California Desert Conservation Area. California Desert Conservation Area

Many provisions of the House bill pertained to the U.S. Forest Service Forest Service, U.S. as a result of Aspinall’s views and the PLLRC report. Most provisions in the law pertaining to the Forest Service were deleted in the conference committee except for the grazing fee language. A third area of contention was congressional limitation on the executive branch to withdraw land for special purposes.

The most contentious issues were related to grazing management, Grazing management including the grazing fee formula, the length of grazing permits and leases, and the structure of grazing advisory boards. Senator Lee Metcalf Metcalf, Lee of Montana offered a compromise, which included the elimination of the grazing fee formula, the establishment of a ten-year term for permits and leases, and the limitation of the functions of the advisory boards. The Senate conferees supported the compromise, but the House conferees split five votes to five votes. A majority of both sides is required to pass a bill. Many observers believed the bill was dead.

At the behest of the bureau, Senator Metcalf called the conferees back together and offered a one-year moratorium on grazing fee increases and a one-year-long comprehensive study of the grazing fee situation. The suggestion broke the deadlock. The final version of the FLPMA is more than fifty pages long and contains provisions for land-use planning, recording mineral claims, naming the director as a presidential appointee subject to Senate confirmation, law-enforcement authority, grazing management, rights-of-way, creation of two national conservation areas, provisions for a wilderness review program, and the deletion of many outdated public land statutes. President Gerald R. Ford signed the bill on October 21, 1976.


The contentious passage of the FLPMA indicates an important turn of events for the Bureau of Land Management. From the time that the Taylor Grazing Act passed in 1934 Taylor Grazing Act (1934) until the mid-1970’s, the Grazing Service and its successor agency, the BLM, were forced to rely on commodity-oriented interest groups such as livestock producers and miners for their political support. As that support ebbed and flowed, the fortunes of the agency rose and fell.

It was not until the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that environmental interests devoted enough time and energy to influence effectively public policy regarding the BLM. With adoption of a multiple-use mandate, the BLM was subject to many of the same multidirectional pressures that affected the U.S. Forest Service. Conservation interest groups routinely criticize the bureau for its close ties to commodity interests, and the commodity interests often berate the agency because it has come to represent environmental interests. The BLM is no longer captured by a single interest group but it frequently finds itself in a struggle between conflicting interests and values.

Passage of the FLPMA coincided with the election of President Jimmy Carter Carter, Jimmy
[p]Carter, Jimmy;environmental policy and a philosophical change among administration officials who were openly supportive of environmental interests. Implementation of the new law fell to Frank Gregg, who became the bureau’s director in 1977. Gregg had held staff positions in the Department of the Interior under Stewart Udall and with conservation groups such as the Izaak Walton League. Izaak Walton League of America He was familiar with the bureau’s operations and the tension between commodity and amenity interests as they squared off over control of the public lands. Many in the bureau hoped that passage of the FLPMA would lead to a period of growth and stability for the agency. Instead, Gregg and the bureau were often the subject of much controversy. The increased influence of environmental interests as well as court challenges to existing mining, timber, and grazing programs polarized the bureau’s constituencies.

A lawsuit initiated by the Natural Resources Defense Council Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in October, 1973, had challenged the adequacy of a single, nationwide, BLM environmental impact statement (EIS) reviewing livestock grazing. In April, 1975, the bureau and the NRDC reached a court-supervised settlement in which the BLM agreed to prepare more than 200 (later reduced to 142) site-specific grazing impact statements. The impact of the court’s ruling was immense. As the BLM tried to implement the requirements of the FLPMA, it was simultaneously forced to expand its grazing- and minerals-management planning capabilities.

Many in the BLM looked upon the problem of EIS production as an opportunity for making new decisions about allocating rangeland resources for multiple use under the FLPMA. The bureau rapidly set out to conduct intensive rangeland inventories and set livestock carrying capacities. As a result of the early EIS’s, about one-half of the grazing allotments were scheduled for reductions, averaging about 10 percent from their current use levels. Politically astute grazing interests countered with court challenges, legislation limiting the levels of reductions, and scientific challenges to the bureau’s use of single-year forage inventory rather than a rangeland monitoring approach to carrying capacity.

Western commodity interests were already angered by President Carter’s list of water resource development projects targeted for deletion in the appropriations process. A prodevelopment backlash seemed inevitable. Eventually, three Nevada BLM grazing permittees who were also state legislators developed a legal strategy that asserted that the federal lands in the West ought to belong to the states as a matter of constitutional law. This movement, which became known as the Sagebrush Rebellion, soon attracted political support throughout the region. It had many similarities to earlier antifederal land-management movements during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.

With the election of Ronald Reagan Reagan, Ronald to the U.S. presidency in 1980 and an ensuing ideological shift in the Interior Department under Secretary James G. Watt, Watt, James G. political opposition shifted from the commodity interests to the environmental interests. The wholesale changes advocated by Watt and other “Sagebrush Rebels,” however, were moderated by the governors of western states and the balanced multiple-use mandate of the FLPMA itself. Eventually, the rebellion lost momentum and ended without significant structural changes in the law or in the relationship between the bureau and its constituency groups. Federal Land Policy and Management Act (1976)
Land-use policy, U.S.[Land use policy, U.S.]
Bureau of Land Management, U.S.

Further Reading

  • Dana, Samuel Trask, and Sally K. Fairfax. Forest and Range Policy: Its Development in the United States. 2d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980. Provides a basic historical overview of natural resource policies since the American colonial period. An excellent starting point for understanding the historical conflicts over U.S. public lands.
  • Foss, Phillip O. Politics and Grass. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1960. Presents detailed analysis of the influence of grazing advisory boards and the capture of the Grazing Service and the BLM by the livestock industry.
  • Muhn, James, and Hanson R. Stuart. Opportunity and Challenge: The Story of the BLM. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1988. Presents a detailed, uncritical chronology of the BLM and its predecessor organizations.
  • Peffer, E. Louise. The Closing of the Public Domain: Disposal and Reservation Policies, 1900-1950. 1951. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1972. The principal and authoritative history of the public domain in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century.
  • Senzel, Irving. “Genesis of a Law.” American Forests 84 (January, 1978): 30-32, 62-64. Provides a detailed description of the politics and compromises that resulted in passage of the FLPMA.
  • U.S. Department of the Interior. Bureau of Land Management. Public Land Statistics, 2005. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2006. Basic statistical document provides data on the BLM’s accomplishments and programs.

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