Federal Land Policy and Management Act (1976)

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Federal Land Policy and Management Act (1976)

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), passed in 1976, is the statutory grounding for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), giving the agency authority and direction for the management of its lands. The initiative leading to the passage of FLPMA can be traced to the BLM itself. The agency was concerned about its insecure statusit was formed by executive reorganization rather than by a congressional act, it lacked a clear mandate for land management, and it was uncertain of the federal government's plans to retain the lands it managed. This final point can be traced to the Taylor Grazing Act , which included a clause that these public lands would be managed for grazing "pending final disposal." The BLM wanted a law that would address each of these issues, so that the agency could undertake long-range, multiple use planning like their colleagues in the Forest Service .

Agency officials drafted the first "organic act" in 1961, but two laws passed in 1964 served to really get the legislative process moving. The Public Land Law Review Commission (PLLRC) Act established a commission to examine the body of public land laws and make recommendations as to how to proceed in this policy area. The Classification and Multiple Use Act instructed the BLM to inventory its lands and classify them for disposal or retention. This would be the first inventory of these lands and resources, and suggested that at least some of these lands would be retained in federal ownership.

The PLLRC issued its report in 1970. In the following years, Congress began to consider three general types of bills in response to the PLLRC report. The administration and the BLM supported a BLM organic act without additional major reforms of other public land laws. The second approach provided the BLM with an organic act, but also made significant revisions in the Mining Law of 1872 and included environmental safeguards for BLM activities. This variety of bill was supported by environmentalists. The final type of bill provided a general framework for more detailed legislation in the future. This general framework tended to support commodity production, and was favored by livestock, mining, and timber interests.

In 1973, a bill of the second variety, introduced by Henry Jackson of Washington, passed the Senate. A similar bill died in the House, though, when it was denied a rule, and hence a trip to the floor, by the Rules Committee. Jackson re-introduced a bill that was nearly identical to the bill previously passed, and the Senate passed this bill in February 1976. In the House, things did not move as quickly. The main House bill, drafted by four western members of the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, included significant provisions dealing with grazingmost importantly, a provision to adopt a statutory grazing fee formula based upon beef prices and private forage cost. This bill had the support of commodity interests, but was opposed by the administration and environmental groups. The bill passed the full House by fourteen votes in July 1976.

The major differences that needed to be addressed in the conference committee included law enforcement, the grazing provisions, mining law provisions, wild horses and burros, unintentional trespass, and the California Desert Conservation Area. By late September, four main differences remained, three involving grazing, and one dealing with mining. For a period it appeared that the bill might die in committee, but final compromises on the grazing and mining issues were made and a bill emerged out of conference. The bill was signed into law in October 1976 by President Gerald Ford.

As passed, FLPMA dealt with four general issue areas: 1) the organic act sections, giving the BLM authority and direction for managing the lands under its control; 2) grazing policy; 3) preservation policy; and 4) mining policy. The act begins by stating that these lands will remain in public ownership: "The Congress declares that it is the policy of the United States that...the public lands be retained in public ownership." This represented the true, final closing of the public domain; the federal government would retain the vast majority of these lands. To underscore this point, FLPMA repealed hundreds of laws dealing with the public lands that were no longer relevant. The BLM, under the authority of the Secretary of the Interior, was authorized to manage these lands for multiple use and sustained yield and was required to develop land use plans and resource inventories for the lands based on long-range planning. A director of the BLM was to be appointed by the President, subject to confirmation by the Senate.

FLPMA limited the withdrawal authority of the Secretary, often used to close lands to mineral development or to protect them for other environmental reasons, by repealing many of the sources of this authority and limiting its uses in other cases. The act allowed for the sale of public lands under a set of guidelines. In a section of the law that received much attention, the BLM was authorized to enforce the law on the lands it managed. The agency was directed to cooperate with local law enforcement agencies as much as possible in this task. It was these agencies, and citizens who lived near BLM lands, who were skeptical of this new BLM enforcement power. Other important provisions of the law allowed for the capture, removal, and relocation of wild horses and burros from BLM lands and authorized the Secretary of the Interior to grant rights-of-way across these lands for most pipelines and electrical transmission lines .

The controversial grazing fee formula in the House bill, favored by the livestock industry, was dropped in the conference committee. In its place, FLPMA froze grazing fees at the 1976 level for one year and directed the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior to undertake a comprehensive study of the grazing fee issue so that an equitable fee could be determined. This report was completed in 1977, and Congress established a statutory fee formula in 1978. That formula was only binding until 1985, though, and since that time Congress has debated the grazing fee issue numerous times, but the issue remains unsettled.

FLPMA also provided that grazing permits be for ten year periods, and that at least two year notice be given before permits were cancelled (except in an emergency). At the end of the ten year lease, if the lands are to remain in grazing, the current permittee has the first priority on renewing the lease to those lands. This virtually guarantees a rancher the use of certain public lands as long as they are to be used for grazing. The permittee is also to receive compensation for private improvements on public lands if the permit is cancelled. These provisions, advocated by livestock interests, further demonstrated their belief, and the belief of their supporters in Congress, that these grazing permits were a type of property right. Grazing advisory boards, originally started after the Taylor Grazing Act but terminated in the early 1970s, were resurrected. These boards consist of local grazing permittees in the area, and advise the BLM on the use of range improvement funds and on allotment management plans.

Important provisions regarding the preservation of BLM lands were also included in FLPMA. BLM lands were not covered in the Wilderness Act of 1964, and FLPMA dealt with this omission by directing that these lands be reviewed for potential wilderness designation, and that recommendations be made by the agency of which lands should be designated as wilderness. These designations would then be acted upon by Congress. This process is well underway. As has been the case with additions to the National Wilderness Preservation System on national forest lands since RARE II, BLM wilderness designation is being considered on a state-by-state basis. Thus far, a comprehensive wilderness designation law has only been passed for Arizona and California. Recent controversy has centered over the designation of wilderness in Utah.

FLPMA established a special California Desert Conservation Area, and directed the BLM to study this area and develop a long-range plan for its management. In 1994, after eight years of consideration, Congress passed the California Desert Protection Act. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California played the major role in guiding the legislation to passage, including overcoming an opposition-led filibuster against the act in October. The act, which included a number of compromises with desert users, established two new national parks and a new national preserve as well as designating approximately 7.5 million acres (3 million ha) of California desert as wilderness (in the two parks, the preserve, and nearly 70 new wilderness areas). The new national parks were created by enlarging and upgrading the existing Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Monuments. The Mojave National Preserve was originally to be a third national park in the desert, but its status was reduced to a national preserve to allow continued hunting , a compromise that helped gain further support for the bill. This law protected more wilderness than any law since the 1980 Alaska Lands Act. The following year, however, there was a move to alter these provisions. As part of the 1996 fiscal year Interior Appropriations bill, Congress directed that the BLMnot the National Park Servicemanage the new Mojave National Preserve. According to Republican supporters, the BLM would allow for more use of the land. President Clinton vetoed this appropriations bill in December 1995, in part due to this change in California Desert management. When the final Interior Appropriations Act was passed in April 1996, it included a provision requiring the Park Service to manage the Mojave under the less restrictive BLM standards, but it also allowed the President to waive this provision. Clinton signed the bill, and then immediately waived the provision, so the Mojave is being managed by the National Park Service under its own standards.

FLPMA required that all mining claims, based on the 1872 Mining Law, be recorded with the BLM within three years. Claims not recorded were presumed abandoned. In the past, such claims only had to be recorded at the county courthouse in the county in which the claim was located. This allowed for increased knowledge about the number and location of such claims. The law also included amendments to the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, increasing the share of the revenues from such leases that went to the states, allowing the states to spend these funds on any public facilities needed (rather than just roads and schools), and reducing the amount of revenues going to the fund to reclaim these mineral funds.

The implementation of FLPMA has been problematic. One consequence of the act, and the planning and management that it has required, was the stimulation of western hostility to the BLM and the existence of so much federal lands. According to a number of analysts, FLPMA was largely responsible for starting the Sagebrush Rebellion , the movement to have federal lands transferred to the states. The foremost implementation problems have been due to the poor bureaucratic capacity of the BLM: the lack of adequate funding, the lack of an adequate number of employees, poor standing within the U.S. Department of the Interior and presidential administrations, and its history of subservience to grazing and mining interests.

[Christopher McGrory Klyza ]



Dana, S. T., and S. K. Fairfax. Forest and Range Policy. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980.


"Fragile California Desert Bill Blooms Late in Session." Congressional Quarterly Almanac 50 (1994): 227231.

"Public Land Management." Congressional Quarterly Almanac 32 (1976): 182188.

Senzel, I. "Genesis of a Law, Part 1." American Forests (January 1978): 3032+.

. "Genesis of a Law, Part 2." American Forests (February 1978): 3239.

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Federal Land Policy and Management Act (1976)

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Federal Land Policy and Management Act (1976)