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Harvard Environmental Law Review


The Property Clause of the Constitution grants Congress the “Power to Dispose” of federal land. Congress uses this Clause to justify permanent federal land ownership of approximately one-third of the land within the United States. Legal scholars, however, are divided as to whether the original understanding of the Clause supports this practice. While many scholars argue that the text and intent of the framers show that Congress has the power to permanently own land within the states, others contend that these sources demonstrate that Congress has a duty to dispose of all federal land not held pursuant to another enumerated power. This scholarly debate has become increasingly important in recent years as a popular movement for state ownership of federal land has reemerged in the West.

This Article argues that the debate over the history of the Property Clause should move beyond the Founding. The original meaning of the text, the intent of the framers, and the precedent of the early Supreme Court simply do not resolve the issue of whether Congress’s Duty to Dispose includes the power to permanently retain land within the states. This Article therefore provides the first detailed examination of how Congress’s Power to Dispose has been understood since the Founding. It concludes that, although Westerners have repeatedly challenged Congress’s power when federal land policy has restricted western development, dominant opinion has always supported a broad construction of Congress’s power. In fact, those who favor federal land ownership have long argued that giving land to individual states would violate a constitutional obligation for Congress to use the land for the common benefit. When constitutional history is properly applied to Congress’s Power to Dispose, it strongly supports federal land ownership.

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Property Clause; federal land; land transfer