There’d be nothing left to protect
A recent op-ed writer claimed that the federal government has unconstitutionally usurped control of public lands from the states and cites Article 1, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution to defend his position. If this allegation had any credibility, it would have long ago been exploited by large resource extraction companies. In fact, the accepted understanding among mainstream legal scholars and the U.S. Supreme Court is that federal land ownership is governed by the Property Clause of the U.S. Constitution, Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2. The Property Clause states, “The Congress hall have the power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the Territory or other property belonging to the Untied States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to prejudice any claims of the Untied States, or of any particular State.”
By the end of the 19th century, the interpretation of the Property Clause was conservation focused. Camfield v. United States (1897): “While we do not undertake to say that Congress has the unlimited power to legislate against nuisances within a State, which it would have within a Territory, we do not think the admission of a Territory as a State deprives it of the power of legislating for the protection of public lands, though it may thereby involve the exercise of what is ordinarily known as the Police Power, so long as such power is directed solely to its own protection. A different rule would place the public domain of the United States completely at the mercy of State legislation.”
A few years later, the court upheld protecting vast tracts of land, such as national forests, to be held in trust for the people of the entire country, and it was for Congress, not the courts, to decide how that trust should be administered (Light v. United States, 1911). While we may not all agree with every decision made by the U.S. Forest Service, if it did not exist, there would be nothing left to protect!