State Lands in Modern Public Land Law
70 Pages Posted: 31 Aug 2017
Date Written: May 2017
Two modern movements cast new light on the role of state lands in modern public land law, broadly conceived. A movement to “reclaim” public land from the federal government has resurfaced across the West — proponents want the United States to cede control and transfer these lands and their resources to the states. A wholly separate movement urges federal land reforms to keep fossil energy resources “in the ground” — to stop federal leasing for coal, oil, and gas — and to align federal land policy with the goal of climate change mitigation. Millions of acres of federal land have long supported a wide range of uses, from mining, oil and gas drilling, and renewable energy development, to grazing, recreation, and wilderness preservation. Although the legal regimes that govern competing values in federal lands are the subject of a deep literature, these movements remind us that publicly-owned lands are not just the federal holdings — state lands are also managed on behalf of the public, or subsets of the public, under very different legal frameworks that are less widely understood.
This Article considers the role of state lands in modern public land law through its key contextual lens: energy development. It contrasts state and federal lands in the energy context at a time when headlines suggest state lands are becoming increasingly relevant to energy development — and not just in the West. Unique law and policy questions arise as an expanding energy sector creates pressure on state lands. From drilling in state parks to installing solar farms on state trust lands, the familiar statutes that structure energy resource extraction and facility siting on federal land are largely inapplicable to state lands. This Article provides critical context for understanding how broad national concerns over the uses of public land and the impacts of energy development on climate change and other environmental goals implicate state lands and their legal regimes.
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