The House Resources Subcommittee on National Parks Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT) made a startling claim at a Republican conference late last week: current federal control of public lands is unconstitutional.
Bishop was on a panel during the Western Republican Leadership Conference to discuss federal control of public lands in the West. After comparing the large tracts of public land that exist out West to the Soviet Union, Bishop told the conservative crowd, “I defy you to find anywhere in the Constitution where this is allowable.”
BISHOP: Federal government owns one out of every three acres in this country. If it’s west of Denver, it’s one out of every two acres. If this kind of federal control is good, then the Soviet Union should have been the Garden of Eden. But what this presents to us – and I defy you to find anywhere in the Constitution where this is allowable – but what it defines to us is – the second slide if you would – everything in red are the states that had the hardest time funding their educations system.
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ThinkProgress caught up with Bishop after the event to find out more about public lands’ supposed unconstitutionality. The Utah Republican told us that federal control of lands out was “never intended” to be permanent. He conceded that national parks were acceptable – “because they’re not moneymakers anyway” – but said that other public lands “could easily be developed and should be developed and there’s no reason for the federal government to keep them.”
KEYES: You mentioned that there’s not constitutional justification for federal control of [public lands]. Can you just elaborate on that a little bit?
BISHOP: The Constitution actually allows very specific reasons for the federal government having land. Almost all of those are for military purposes and like [inaudible] and stuff. The lands in the West transferred over to the federal government prior to statehood was never intended that the federal government would keep that. It was only in the early 1900s that all of a sudden the federal government changed its policy and they codified that with the [inaudible] back in the 1960s.
KEYES: Would you like to see most of that control of federal lands rolled back then?
BISHOP: There are some lands – I’d be happy to let the federal government keep all the national parks, because they’re not moneymakers anyway. We spend money on those. But there are whole other pieces of land and property that could easily be developed and should be developed and there’s no reason for the federal government to keep them.
Despite Rep. Bishop’s belief that he can simply declare public land ownership to be unconstitutional because he doesn’t like the amount of federal land that exists in the West, the Constitution clearly contemplates federal land ownership. Among other things, Article 4, Section 3, Clause 2 of the Constitution provides that “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 Bishop’s unfamiliarity with the plain text of the Constitution is all the more troubling considering that he is one of three founding members of the Congressional Constitution Caucus, a Republican group that prides itself on dealing with constitutional matters.
Moreover, if his suggestion that the federal government may only own “national parks” were taken to its logical conclusion, the federal government couldn’t even own the land beneath the White House unless it was declared a park.
To learn more about the importance of America’s public lands, read CAP’s new report, “The Jobs Case for Conservation: Creating Opportunity Through Stewardship of America’s Public Lands.”