ArtIV.S3.C2.1.2 Public Lands: Federal and State Powers Thereover

Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2:

The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.

No appropriation of public lands may be made for any purpose except by authority of Congress. 1 However, Congress was held to have acquiesced in the long-continued practice of withdrawing land from the public domain by Executive Orders. 2 In 1976 Congress enacted legislation that established procedures for withdrawals and that explicitly disclaimed continued acquiescence in any implicit executive withdrawal authority. 3 The comprehensive authority of Congress over public lands includes the power to prescribe the times, conditions, and mode of transfer thereof and to designate the persons to whom the transfer shall be made, 4 to declare the dignity and effect of titles emanating from the United States, 5 to determine the validity of grants which antedate the government's acquisition of the property, 6 to exempt lands acquired under the homestead laws from previously contracted debts, 7 to withdraw land from settlement and to prohibit grazing thereon, 8 to prevent unlawful occupation of public property and to declare what are nuisances, as affecting such property, and provide for their abatement, 9 and to prohibit the introduction of liquor on lands purchased and used for the Reno Indian Colony. 10 Congress may limit the disposition of the public domain to a manner consistent with its views of public policy. A restriction inserted in a grant of public lands to a municipality which prohibited the grantee from selling or leasing to a private corporation the right to sell or sublet water or electric energy supplied by the facilities constructed on such land was held valid. 11

Unanimously upholding a federal law to protect wild-roaming horses and burros on federal lands, the Court restated the applicable principles governing Congress’s power under this clause. It empowers Congress to act as both proprietor and legislature over the public domain; Congress has complete power to make those needful rules which in its discretion it determines are necessary. When Congress acts with respect to those lands covered by the clause, its legislation overrides conflicting state laws. 12 Absent action by Congress, however, states may in some instances exercise some jurisdiction over activities on federal lands. 13

No state may tax public lands of the United States within its borders, 14 nor may state legislation interfere with the power of Congress under this clause or embarrass its exercise. 15 Thus, by virtue of a Treaty of 1868, according self-government to Navajos living on a reservation in Arizona, the tribal court, rather than the courts of that state, had jurisdiction over a suit for a debt owed by a Navajo resident to a non-Indian conducting a store on the reservation under federal license. 16 The question whether title to land that has once been the property of the United States has passed from it must be resolved by the laws of the United States; after title has passed, that property, like all other property in the state, is subject to the state legislation; so far as that legislation is consistent with the admission that the title passed and vested according to the laws of the United States.17 In construing a conveyance by the United States of land within a state, the settled and reasonable rule of construction of the state affords a guide in determining what impliedly passes to the grantee as an incident to land expressly granted. 18 But a state statute enacted subsequently to a federal grant cannot operate to vest in the state rights that either remained in the United States or passed to its grantee. 19


  1.  United States v. Fitzgerald, 40 U.S. (15 Pet.) 407, 421 (1841). See also California v. Deseret Water, Oil & Irrigation Co., 243 U.S. 415 (1917); Utah Power & Light Co. v. United States, 243 U.S. 389 (1917).
  2.  Sioux Tribe v. United States, 316 U.S. 317 (1942); United States v. Midwest Oil Co., 236 U.S. 459, 469 (1915).
  3.  Federal Land Policy and Management Act, Pub. L. No. 94-579, § 704(a); 90 Stat. 2792 (1976).
  4.  Gibson v. Chouteau, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 92, 99 (1872); see also Irvine v. Marshall, 61 U.S. (20 How.) 558 (1858); Emblem v. Lincoln Land Co., 184 U.S. 660, 664 (1902).
  5.  Bagnell v. Broderick, 38 U.S. (13 Pet.) 436, 450 (1839). See also Field v. Seabury, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 323, 332 (1857).
  6.  Tameling v. United States Freehold & Immigration Co., 93 U.S. 644, 663 (1877). See also Maxwell Land-Grant Case, 121 U.S. 325, 366 (1887).
  7.  Ruddy v. Rossi, 248 U.S. 104 (1918).
  8.  Light v. United States, 220 U.S. 523 (1911). See also The Yosemite Valley Case, 82 U.S. (15 Wall.) 77 (1873).
  9.  Camfield v. United States, 167 U.S. 518, 525 (1897). See also Jourdan v. Barrett, 45 U.S. (4 How.) 169 (1846); United States v. Waddell, 112 U.S. 76 (1884).
  10.  United States v. McGowan, 302 U.S. 535 (1938).
  11.  United States v. City of San Francisco, 310 U.S. 16 (1940).
  12.  Kleppe v. New Mexico, 426 U.S. 529 (1976).
  13.  California Coastal Comm’n v. Granite Rock Co., 480 U.S. 572 (1987).
  14.  Van Brocklin v. Tennessee, 117 U.S. 151 (1886); cf. Wilson v. Cook, 327 U.S. 474 (1946).
  15.  Gibson v. Chouteau, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 92, 99 (1872). See also Irvine v. Marshall, 61 U.S. (20 How.) 558 (1858); Emblem v. Lincoln Land Co., 184 U.S. 660, 664 (1902).
  16.  Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. 217 (1959).
  17.  Wilcox v. McConnel, 38 U.S. (13 Pet.) 498, 517 (1839).
  18.  Oklahoma v. Texas, 258 U.S. 574, 595 (1922).
  19.  United States v. Oregon, 295 U.S. 1, 28 (1935).