Federal Acquisition of Public Lands

Congress has the power to acquire land in aid of other powers conferred upon Congress by the Constitution[i].  Pursuant to 43 USCS § 1715 (a), the Secretary of the Interior is  authorized to acquire by purchase, exchange, donation, or eminent domain, lands, or interests therein.

However, the power of eminent domain may be exercised only to secure access to public lands and then only if the lands so acquired are confined to as narrow a corridor as is necessary to serve such purpose[ii].

Pursuant to 43 USCS § 1715(c), upon acceptance of title, lands and interests in land acquired by the Secretary of the Interior become public lands and remain public lands for the administration of public land laws.

If such acquired lands or interests in lands are located within the exterior boundaries of a grazing district, they become a part of that district[iii].

Lands and interests in lands acquired which are within boundaries of the National Forest System may be transferred to the Secretary of Agriculture and then become National Forest System lands and subject to all the laws, rules, and regulations applicable thereto[iv].

The Secretary of Agriculture is authorized to acquire access over nonfederal lands for access to units of the National Forest System[v].

Lands and interests in lands acquired by the Secretary of Agriculture, upon acceptance of title, become National Forest System lands subject to all the laws, rules, and regulations applicable thereto[vi].

Subject to the appropriation of funds by Congress, the Secretary of Agriculture is authorized to acquire privately owned land within the perimeter of any area designated as wilderness if[vii]:

  • the owner concurs in such acquisition or
  • the acquisition is specifically authorized by Congress.

 

Pursuant to 43 USCS § 1716 (a), a tract of public land or interests therein may be disposed of by exchange for nonfederal lands or interests in the same state, by the Secretary and determines that the public interest will be well served by making that exchange.

Similarly, a tract of land or interests therein within the National Forest System may be disposed of by exchange by the Secretary of Agriculture[viii].

However, when considering public interest, the Secretary concerned should give full consideration to better Federal land management and the needs of State and local people, including needs for lands for the economy, community expansion, recreation areas, food, fiber, minerals, and fish and wildlife[ix].

The Secretary concerned should also assure that the values and the objectives which Federal lands or interests to be conveyed may serve if retained in Federal ownership are not more than the values of the non-Federal lands or interests and the public objectives they could serve if acquired[x].

Pursuant to 43 USCS § 1716 (b), in exercising the exchange authority, the Secretary concerned may accept title to any non-Federal land or interests therein, in exchange for such land, or interests therein, which s/he finds proper for transfer out of Federal ownership and which are located in the same State as the non-Federal land or interest to be acquired.

The values of the lands exchanged by the Secretary concerned should be equal, or if they are not equal, the values should be equalized by the payment of money to the grantor or to the Secretary concerned as the circumstances require so long as payment does not exceed 25 per centum of the total value of the lands or interests transferred out of Federal ownership[xi].

Pursuant to 43 USCS § 1701 (a) (10), uniform procedures for any disposal of public land, acquisition of non-Federal land for public purposes, and the exchange of such lands is established by statute.

The statutory procedures require each disposal, acquisition, and exchange to be consistent with the prescribed mission of the department or agency involved[xii].  The statute also reserve to the Congress review of disposals in excess of a specified acreage.

Further, public land may not be disposed of by exchange to a noncitizen or to a corporation that is not subject to state or federal law[xiii].

[i] Utah Div. of State Lands v. United States, 482 U.S. 193 (U.S. 1987).

[ii] 43 USCS § 1715(a).

[iii] 43 USCS § 1715(c).

[iv] Id.

[v] 43 USCS § 1715(a).

[vi] 43 USCS § 1715 (d).

[vii] 16 USCS § 1134 (c).

[viii] 43 USCS § 1716 (a).

[ix] Id.

[x] Id.

[xi] 43 USCS § 1716 (b).

[xii] 43 USCS § 1701 (a) (10).

[xiii] 43 USCS § 1717.


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