John F. Kennedy photo

Letter to Representative Aspinall Concerning Revision of the Public Land Laws.

January 25, 1963

[ Released January 25, 1963. Dated January 17, 1963 ]

Dear Mr. Chairman:

This responds further to your letter of October 15 in which you suggest that the Executive Branch come forward with its suggestions for revision of the public land laws. Both the context of your letter and past considerations of this subject indicate that your interest lies particularly in the area of authority and procedure for effecting withdrawal, reservation, classification or similar action tending to restrict the use or disposal of public lands.

At the outset, I wish to assure you that we are fully mindful of and sincerely respect the constitutional prerogative of the Congress to make rules for the management and disposal of the public lands. At the same time, it is the function of the Executive Branch to administer publicly owned resources within the framework of standards established by the Congress. Your invitation to enter into a joint effort to review and revise the public land laws is therefore most welcome. We are confident that this can be done in a manner that does not infringe upon our respective constitutional powers.

Similarly, it seems clear that we must give due weight to the lessons of history in this highly important area of the public business. As you are well aware, one of these lessons is that the wise use of our dwindling public land base is becoming increasingly technical and complex. At the same time, the Congress is faced with major policy decisions in meeting the challenge of the space age. Both of these factors dictate that day-to-day administration be conducted as an executive function subject to the policy guidance provided by the Congress. Your Committee evidently had this predicament well in mind when, in House Report 2521, 87th Congress (at page 16), it pointed out that the Legislative Branch is not equipped to engage in the kind of detailed consideration that must attend the hundreds of individual land use decisions inherent in effective management of the public lands.

From your letter and other congressional expressions on this subject, there appears to be a concern that the Congress has not fully discharged its responsibilities but has, in effect, abdicated some of its prerogatives to administrative discretion. In one sense this analysis may be perfectly valid, particularly if it is addressed to the existence of a single, comprehensive and integrated code of public land policies. But from another viewpoint, the public land laws constitute a voluminous, even forbidding, body of policy determinations within which the land management agencies must operate. Dating back as much as a century and a half, this complex of statutory guidelines varies from the most detailed prescription of ministerial acts to mere definition of an objective coupled with broad grants of discretion to administrators. Viewed in this perspective, the deficiencies of the present structure become apparent. Uncoordinated and disjointed and containing conflicts and inconsistencies on the one hand, this statutory framework has relied upon administrative construction in order to serve the needs of orderly management.

My predecessors have been acutely aware of the dilemmas facing the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior as principal administrators of the original public domain. Whenever they have been faced with a reasonable alternative of continued public ownership and management, or disposition, they have generally elected the former. That course has seemed to them, as to my predecessors and now to me, most consistent with the public interest and the trend of congressional policy, given the expanding pressure of population, the generally rising values, and other considerations of similar import. It has, in your phrase, been "in accordance with the time honored conservation principle of effecting the maximum good for the maximum number." Many of the great issues in public land policy have come about as the result of action by progressive-minded Presidents who withdrew land from the effect of the disposition statutes in major segments. On occasion these choices may have seemed to outdistance express statutory policy, but the policies which have governed the choices have been under constant congressional scrutiny.

It is this approach to the subject which prompts me to concur wholeheartedly in your view that the system warrants comprehensive revision. The immediate prospect of population pressures which will tax land resources demands policies aimed at current and future objectives, including the preservation of natural conditions for public enjoyment. This need not, and should not, exclude selective disposal into private and non-Federal public ownership where that course will promote the ideal of highest and best use for the whole national community. Clearly there may be differences of opinion as to whether and how well the traditional public land laws have achieved this goal. But the fact of your invitation to propose changes, coupled with the various measures submitted or supported by the executive agencies during the last Congress, are evidence of substantial agreement that the standards of the past are not adequate to the challenge of the present or future.

These observations emphasize substantive reform, but should not be interpreted as an argument against the unquestioned right of the Congress, through its committees, to subject executive management to legislative oversight. On the contrary, the agencies primarily involved have by informal agreement over the past several years reported major land withdrawal proposals for your Committee's study and comment. This arrangement has in itself demonstrated a singular degree of agreement on the substance of such decisions. I am informed that, of 26 cases reported by the Department of the Interior over the past three years, prompt agreement was indicated in 23 and one is still pending. In only two instances was postponement of final approval suggested so that further study might be given to legislative action severing subsurface resources.

It would appear, based upon this highly pragmatic test over a significant period that the executive and the legislative branches are in basic agreement regarding land management philosophy. In any event, as indicated above, we can see some benefit in consolidating and perhaps clarifying the various laws. Pending development of more precise substantive standards, it would seem that continuation of existing procedures is desirable on either a formal or informal basis. You may be assured of our willingness to cooperate with the Congress on either basis. Should it be determined that some statutory formality is needed, it is urged that it be limited to a relatively simple reporting procedure. Any requirement for approval short of formal enactment of a statute or requirement of a waiting period which may be shortened by less than statutory action raises difficult constitutional questions which seem easily avoidable in this situation.

I have asked the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture to make themselves and their staffs fully available to discuss all aspects of this matter at your convenience.



[Honorable Wayne N. Aspinall, Chairman, Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, House of Representatives, Washington, D.C.]

John F. Kennedy, Letter to Representative Aspinall Concerning Revision of the Public Land Laws. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Filed Under



Simple Search of Our Archives