Public Lands Council v. Babbitt

PETITIONER:Public Lands Council
LOCATION:Hawaii Office of Elections

DOCKET NO.: 98-1991
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

CITATION: 529 US 728 (2000)
ARGUED: Mar 01, 2000
DECIDED: May 15, 2000

Edwin S. Kneedler – Department of Justice, argued the cause for respondents
Timothy S. Bishop – Argued the cause for the petitioners

Facts of the case

The Taylor Grazing Act grants the Secretary of the Interior authority to divide the public rangelands into grazing districts, to specify the amount of grazing permitted in each district, and to issue grazing leases or permits to “settlers, residents, and other stock owners.” When Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt announced new regulations governing the administration of livestock on 170 million acres of public range, the Public Lands Council (Council), a group of nonprofit ranching-related organizations, objected. The Council’s members who held grazing permits brought an action against Secretary Babbitt challenging 10 of the new federal grazing regulations issued by the Secretary in 1995. The Council claimed that the Secretary acted beyond his power in regulating the grazing patterns. The District Court found 4 of the 10 regulations unlawful. Reversing in part, the Court of Appeals upheld three previously overturned regulations, which changed the definition of “grazing preference,” permitted those who were not “engaged in the livestock business” to qualify for grazing permits; and granted the United States title to all future range improvements.


Do the Secretary of the Interior’s amendments governing grazing preferences, permit issuance, and ownership of range improvements to the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 exceed the authority that this statute grants the Secretary and violate the Act?

Media for Public Lands Council v. Babbitt

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – March 01, 2000 in Public Lands Council v. Babbitt

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – May 15, 2000 in Public Lands Council v. Babbitt

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 98-1991, Public Lands Council versus Babbitt will be announced by Justice Breyer.

Stephen G. Breyer:

Much of the land on the Western Plains is public land.

Ranchers have long used that land for grazing cattle and sheep and during the early 20th centuries, growing herds of livestock and increasing number of settlers led to conflict and the famous conflict between the sheepmen and the cowmen and between all the ranchers and settlers and among various other groups those who fenced it in and those who did not.

That conflict, and overgrazing, scarce water, and famous dust storms led Congress in 1934 to pass the Taylor Grazing Act.

That law helped to preserve the public grazing lands by delegating considerable administrative power to the Secretary of the Interior in regularizing grazing practices to the Secretary’s grant of grazing permits for grazing livestock on the public lands.

Now the case before us involves some amendments that the Secretary made to the Taylor Act regulations in 1995.

Groups primarily of ranchers or representing ranchers have challenged the lawfulness of three of those amendments, claiming that they exceed the Secretary’s statutory authority.

One regulation changes the definition of grazing privileges, a second regulation deletes an earlier regulation’s requirement that applicants had to be engaged in the livestock business, and the third one puts title to permanent range improvement such as fences and wells in the United States.

The Tenth Circuit upheld the lawfulness of all three of these new regulations, though by a divided vote in the case of two of them.

We considered the three and today we affirm the Tenth Circuit.

We explain why we hold the regulations lawful in our opinion, which is a little technical.

We note throughout that opinion, but the Secretary has considerable authority to regulate grazing, but also we note that many of the adverse consequences that the ranchers fear including unfair departures from prior practice seem unlikely to follow merely from the regulatory amendments that we are considering.

And in any event if those consequences did occur, individual affected ranchers would remain free to challenge the lawfulness of the regulations when applied to them, at that time.

The upshot is that we find as a general matter that the changes to “one of the statutory requirements do not constitute a failure to adequately safeguard grazing privileges”, they need the other relevant statutory requirement as well.

Our opinion is unanimous.

Justice O’ Connor has also filed a concurring opinion.