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FRIDAY, JULY 28, 1995
ENR (202) 514-2008 TDD (202) 514-1888
UNITED STATES ASKS COURT TO REAFFIRM OWNERSHIP OF PUBLIC LANDS OPEN ARGUMENTS HEARD IN U.S. V. NYE COUNTY, NEVADA WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Citing an "unbroken line" of legal precedent, the United States today asked a District Court in Las Vegas, Nevada to strike down a controversial county resolution that has challenged the United States' ownership and management of public lands and threatened the ability of government employees to do their jobs. The request came during oral argument in a lawsuit filed by the United States against Nye County, Nevada. "Nye County has enacted resolutions claiming ownership and management rights over the federal public lands, and taken confrontational actions implementing these resolutions," argued Peter Coppelman, the Department's Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division. "The United States asks this Court to remove any possible doubt about the United States' right to own and manage the national parks, forests, refuges, and rangelands that are held in trust for all our citizens." The United States filed suit against Nye County on March 8, 1994. It did so following Nye County challenges to United States control and management of federal lands. In 1993, Nye County Commissioners approved a resolution that claims the State of Nevada, not the United States, owns national forests and other federal lands. Under this claim, Nye County would therefore have the authority to manage these lands. Another resolution claimed ownership of virtually every road and trail on federal lands within the county boundaries. Using these resolutions for shelter, Nye County has threatened United States employees with criminal prosecution and other legal action for implementing federal laws. In addition, the county has bulldozed open National Forest roads closed by the Forest Service, and damaged natural and archaeological resources. "Nye County's resolutions and actions based upon these resolutions have not only been aggressive and confrontational, but flatly unconstitutional as well," said Lois J. Schiffer, Assistant Attorney General for the Environment Division. "We welcome local participation in land management decisions. What we do not welcome and will not tolerate are illegal actions that hinder or threaten the ability of government employees to do their jobs." Among the arguments made by Coppelman, on behalf of the United States: þ The "Property Clause of the Constitution authorizes the federal government to retain and manage lands within States for the benefit of all citizens. In an unbroken line of precedent spanning over 150 years, the Supreme Court has held that the power over the public land entrusted to
Congress...is 'without limitation.'" þ þ Nye County arguments -- specifically that the Constitution's Equal Footing Doctrine authorized its actions -- have no legal merit and fly in the face of Supreme Court precedent. The consequences of accepting Nye County's argument would be severe. "In effect, the County asks this Court to redraw the map of the United States, and to rewrite 150 years of American history...Under Nye's theory there would be almost no national parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges, wilderness areas."
Nye County is one of dozens of counties, mainly in the West, that have challenged federal control of public lands. This movement is often referred to as the "County Supremacy" or "Sagebrush Rebellion II" or "Home Rule" movement. The movement has suffered a number of recent legal setbacks, as several court decisions have backed the position of the United States. GARDNER V. STAGER -- A June 29, 1995 decision by a District Court in Reno, Nevada dismissed an attempt by ranchers, Cliff and Bertha Gardner, to gain grazing rights and water rights in Humboldt National Forest without complying with federal law. In doing so, the Court held that such claims "reflect a lack of research into the most basic legal concepts and principles applicable to this case, and...are directly contradicted by an unbroken line of Supreme Court precedent...If they believe the federal government is acting unfairly or unwisely, the appropriate course of action is to take the complaint to their elected representatives in Congress." U.S. V. MEDENBACH -- A May 9, 1995 decision by a District Court in Oregon, involving a civil trespass action, found that "the United States, acting through the Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management, is the owner and manager of certain public lands located in Klamath County." The Court went on to say that "the United States retains and manages these lands pursuant to its powers under the Constitution, primarily the Property Clause." BOUNDARY BACKPACKERS V. BOUNDARY COUNTY -- In an Idaho case concerning the constitutionality of county ordinances, a State court ruled that "the federal government is empowered to regulate federal lands by the property clause of the Constitution...This applies to all federal lands and waterways...The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly held that Congress' power under the property clause is exclusive, without limitation, and free from state interference" ### 95-420