Public Land Commissions

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PUBLIC LAND COMMISSIONS have been established on four occasions by the United States government to review federal land policies and to make recommendations for their improvement or redirection. In 1879 Congress authorized the first of them. At that time there was widespread abuse of the settlement laws, corruption prevailed in the local land offices and in the awarding of lucrative surveying contracts, the General Land Office was understaffed and far behind in its work, and a mass of conflicting land laws and administrative orders required revision. Five distinguished men long associated with public land administration made up the commission, the best known of whom was John W. Powell. The testimony they took during a three-month tour of the West revealed scandalous management of the surveys, illegal sale of relinquishments, and exploitative activities by land attorneys and agents; it further indicated that hydraulic mining was doing serious damage to rich valley lands in California. Recommendations for change included abolition of the unnecessary receivers' office in each land district, better salaries for the staff of the General Land Office, classification of the public lands, sale of the grazing lands, and exchange of lands between the railroads and the government to block areas for more effective management. Congress failed to act, although some of the reforms came into effect in 1889–1891, by which time the best of the arable land had gone into private ownership. Thomas Donaldson, a member of the commission, left its most lasting contribution, The Public Domain, a 1,300-page history and analysis of land policies that has since become a basic source of information about land policies. It bore down heavily on the misuse of the settlement laws.

In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt appointed the second commission with Gifford Pinchot, then head of the Bureau of Forestry in the Department of Agriculture, as its most important member. After hearings in Washington, D.C., and in the West, the commission recommended the repeal of the Timber and Stone Act of 1878, as had the first commission. It also urged the appraisal of timber and other lands before they were sold; the establishment of grazing districts under the administration of the Department of Agriculture, with fees for use of the public ranges for grazing; the repeal of the lieu land feature of the Forest Management Act of 1897; and additional safeguards in the Homestead Act of 1862 and Desert Land Act of 1877. Congress was not receptive, although it repealed the lieu land provision and transferred the forest reserves from the Department of the Interior to the Agriculture Department's Bureau of Forestry under Pinchot.

Western livestock, lumber, and mining interests did not like the dynamic leadership of Pinchot, one of the founders of the modern conservation movement, and in 1910 they brought about his dismissal by President William Howard Taft. These interests were pressing for the ceding of the public lands to the states in which they were located, thereby reviving an issue that had agitated the public land states for a century. They also opposed executive withdrawals of public lands that protected them from entry by private individuals and companies. They wanted no more government controls on public lands. Until 1929 their influence was responsible for relaxation of controls in the Department of the Interior while livestock overgrazed the public lands, which seriously diminished their carrying capacity.

Conservationist forces were not moribund but rather were regrouping their forces to protect the national forests from passing into private hands and to provide management of the public domain rangelands previously uncontrolled. President Herbert Hoover may have sensed this groundswell and shrewdly decided to anticipate it with a proposal to convey to the western states the remaining public lands not subject to controlled use by a government agency. In response to his request, Congress authorized the appointment of the third commission, known as the Committee on the Conservation and Administration of the Public Domain. A carefully picked committee, dominated by westerners, recommended that the public lands, minus mineral rights, revert to the states in the hope that they would establish grazing control but that if they did not, the United States should undertake to do so in the recalcitrant states. The committee also recommended a procedure to eliminate those portions of the national forests it was not deemed desirable to retain. Conservationists throughout the country, not agreeing with the president that the record of the states was better than that of the National Forest Service in administering both forest and rangelands under its jurisdiction, sprang to arms in opposition to the recommendations. Most western states were also distressed at the recommendations, for they felt that without the mineral rights, they would gain little from the ceding of the lands. No action occurred.

In 1964 the fourth and best-financed of the public land commissions came into existence, when many issues affecting the public lands needed serious attention and Congress was already considering measures relating to them. Rather than deal with these questions in a piecemeal fashion, Congress decided to create the Public Land Law Review Commission, which, through use of the best expert aid in the universities and government agencies, undertook an overall examination of the many overlapping and conflicting programs and make recommendations to the Congress for new legislation. Again, failing to recognize that the public lands belong to the nation and that people of all states are deeply concerned about their management, the commission was strongly slanted toward the western viewpoint. Its final report, One-Third of the Nation's Land, contained homilies about planning for future needs and multiple use but placed emphasis on giving commercial interests more leeway in utilizing and acquiring ownership of the public lands, although requiring that they pay more for those privileges. The report showed westerners' dislike of the use of executive authority to effect land withdrawals, opposition to higher fees for grazing privileges, and preferences for state, as opposed to federal, administrative authority. It also reflected the general public's concern for retaining public lands in government ownership and for multiple use of the lands, but it favored "dominant use," which generally meant timber cutting and mining above other uses. Conservationists long accustomed to regarding the National Forest Service as the best administrative agency dealing with land matters disliked the proposal to consolidate it with the Bureau of Land Management. Environmentalists feared that the commission's failure to recommend the repeal of the Mining Act of 1872, which had been responsible for some of the most serious errors of the past in land administration, showed a marked insensitivity to public attitudes.


Boschken, Herman L. Land Use Conflicts: Organizational Design and Resource Management. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.

Bryner, Gary C. U.S. Land and Natural Resources Policy: A Public Issues Handbook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Burch, William R., et al. Measuring the Social Impact of Natural Resource Policies. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984.

Clarke, Jeanne Nienaber, and Daniel C. McCool. Staking out the Terrain: Power and Performance Among Natural Resource Agencies. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Nester, William R. The War for America's Natural Resources. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.

Taylor, Bob Pepperman. Our Limits Transgressed: Environmental Political Thought in America. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992.

Worster, Donald. A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Paul W.Gates/a. e.

See alsoForest Service ; Land Office, U.S. General and Bureau Plans Management ; Land Policy ; Public Lands, Fencing of ; West, American .

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Public Land Commissions

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Public Land Commissions