MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.
At issue in this case is the effect of Executive Order No. 8979 and Public Land Order No. 487 upon the Secretary of the Interior's authority to issue oil and gas leases.
Between October 15, 1954, and January 28, 1955, D. J. Griffin and other persons—hereinafter collectively referred to as the Griffin lessees—filed applications for oil and gas leases on approximately 25,000 acres located in the Kenai National Moose Range in Alaska. On August 14, 1958, the respondents filed offers to lease the same lands. Section 17 of the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 provides, in relevant part, that "the person first making application for the lease who is qualified to hold a lease . . . shall be entitled to a lease of such lands without competitive bidding. . . ." 41 Stat. 443 (1920), as amended by 60 Stat. 951 (1946), 30 U. S. C. § 226 (1958 ed.). The Bureau of Land Management of the Department of the Interior determined that the Griffin lessees were the persons who had applied first, and issued to them leases on the tracts, effective September 1, 1958. Respondents' applications were reached for processing in
From the rejection of their applications, respondents appealed to the Director of the Bureau of Land Management and then to the Secretary of the Interior, both of whom affirmed the decision. 68 I. D. 256 (1961). Respondents then brought an action in the nature of mandamus, in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, to compel the Secretary to issue oil and gas leases to them. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the Secretary dismissing the complaint. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed, holding that Executive Order No. 8979, the order creating the Moose Range in 1941, and Public Land Order No. 487, issued by the Secretary in 1948,
We conclude that the District Court correctly refused to issue a writ of mandamus, and accordingly reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals. Since their promulgation, the Secretary has consistently construed both orders not to bar oil and gas leases; moreover, this interpretation has been made a repeated matter of public record. While the Griffin leases and others located in the Moose Range have been developed in reliance upon the Secretary's interpretation, respondents do not claim to have relied to their detriment upon a contrary construction. The Secretary's interpretation may not be the only one permitted by the language of the orders, but it is quite clearly a reasonable interpretation; courts must therefore respect it. McLaren v. Fleischer, 256 U.S. 477, 481; Bowles v. Seminole Rock Co., 325 U.S. 410, 413-414.
The Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, 41 Stat. 437, 30 U. S. C. § 181 et seq. (1958 ed.), gave the Secretary of the Interior broad power to issue oil and gas leases on public lands not within any known geological structure of a producing oil and gas field. Although the Act directed that if a lease was issued on such a tract, it had to be issued to the first qualified applicant, it left the Secretary discretion to refuse to issue any lease at all on a given tract. United States ex rel. McLennan v. Wilbur, 283 U.S. 414. The Act excluded from its application certain designated lands,
On June 16, 1948, the Secretary issued Public Land Order No. 487, 13 Fed. Reg. 3462:
Thus neither Executive Order No. 8979 nor Public Land Order No. 487 expressly withdrew the lands to which it applied from oil and gas leasing. In 1951, however, the Secretary set aside, for uses inconsistent with mineral leasing, minor portions of the lands covered by Public Land Order No. 487:
Had the Secretary thought that Public Land Order No. 487 had already withdrawn the lands covered by it from appropriation under the mineral-leasing laws, his reference to such laws in the 1951 orders would have been superfluous.
By an intra-agency memorandum dated August 31, 1953, the Director of the Bureau of Land Management advised the Regional Administrators of the Bureau and managers of the local land offices that "a possible revision of policy and regulations" on leasing in wildlife refuges was being studied, and directed them that "[p]ending the completion of this study and the possible revision of existing regulations, you will suspend action on all pending oil and gas lease offers and applications for lands within such refuges." It is not disputed, and subsequent memoranda make clear, that the 1953 memorandum did not purport to prevent either the issuance of leases with
On September 9, 1955, the Secretary issued Public Land Order No. 1212, 20 Fed. Reg. 6795, revoking in its entirety Public Land Order No. 487. After granting certain preferences, it provided:
Respondents make much of the italicized language, which does appear to be inconsistent with the Department's prior interpretation of Public Land Order No. 487 and its actual leasing practices. However, on October 14, 1955—35 days after it was promulgated but before it went into effect, and years before the respondents entered the picture—Public Land Order No. 1212 was amended to delete the references to the mineral-leasing laws. 20 Fed. Reg. 7904.
On December 8, 1955, the anticipated revision of the 1947 refuge-leasing regulation was promulgated. 20 Fed. Reg. 9009. It was more restrictive than the old regulation, and gave increased power to the Fish and Wildlife Service to approve or disapprove oil and gas development of refuges. It listed in an Appendix A a number of refuges (not including Kenai) in which, because of their importance to the preservation of rare species of plant and animal life, no leasing at all would be permitted. In Appendix B it listed certain areas (including a small part of the Moose Range not involved here) "with respect to which the Fish and Wildlife Service reports that oil and gas development might seriously impair or destroy the usefulness of the lands for wildlife conservation purposes. . . ." In such Appendix B areas, leasing was to be permitted only upon the approval by the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service of "a complete and detailed operating program for the area." In all other wildlife areas the regulation provided that "[o]il and gas leases may be issued" provided they contain specified conditions requiring approval by the Fish and Wildlife Service of the type of prospecting to be conducted, and adoption by the
When bills were introduced in Congress early in 1956 to restrict oil and gas leasing in wildlife refuges, the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries and the Subcommittee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries of the Senate Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce held extensive hearings thereon. The bills as introduced only forbade the Secretary to "dispose of" lands in wildlife refuges, and the question arose during the hearings whether that language would apply to the issuance of oil and gas leases. A representative of the Department asserted, without contradiction, that the granting of an oil and gas lease was not a "disposition" and would not be affected by the language as proposed. Hearings before the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries on H. R. 5306, etc., 84th Cong., 2d Sess., p. 98. An amendment was accordingly proposed specifically restricting oil and gas leasing. Neither committee reported
Pursuant to the agreement, the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries held public hearings on July 20 and 25, 1956, on a proposal from the Fish and Wildlife Service for the issuance of 30 oil and gas leases on 71,680 acres in the northern half of the Moose Range— located within the area encompassed by Executive Order No. 8979—for which lease applications had been filed in 1954 by amicus curiae Richfield Oil Corporation and others. The proposal contemplated that the leases would be subject to the Swanson River Unit plan of operation, which had been approved by the Bureau of Land Management, the Geological Survey and the Fish and Wildlife Service, all branches of the Department of the Interior. At the hearing on the proposal a spokesman for the National Wildlife Federation urged that Executive Order No. 8979 precluded the issuance of the leases. Transcript of Hearing before the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, July 20 and 25, 1956, Lease of Portions of Kenai National Moose Range, pp. 17, 19, 24-26. But see id., pp. 35-36; letter, July 24, 1956, Deputy Solicitor, Department of the Interior, to Hon. E. L.
Following the Committee's approval the leases were issued, an exploratory well was drilled and oil was discovered in commercial quantities in July 1957. See Rep. Alaska Gov. 88 (1957); Rep. Secy. Int. 356 (1957); Rep. Secy. Int. 104, 199, 258, 356 (1958). The Swanson River leases soon became again a subject of congressional concern, when the Secretary of the Interior—realizing that although he had authority to issue leases on dry land, he lacked such authority with respect to lands beneath Alaskan inland navigable waters—asked Congress for authority to issue leases on Alaskan water bottoms, and to add to the leases already issued in Alaska and to applications pending there the water bottoms within their
The bill was subsequently enacted into law. 72 Stat. 322 (1958), 48 U. S. C. § 456 and 30 U. S. C. § 251 (1958 ed.).
Meanwhile, the controversy over the leasing policies to be followed in wildlife refuges was resolved by the adoption, on January 8, 1958, of another complete revision of the regulation. 23 Fed. Reg. 227, 43 CFR § 192.9. The revision represented a near-total victory for the conservationists. It altogether prohibited oil and gas leasing, unless necessary to prevent draining, in
Pursuant to the regulation, there was published in the Federal Register on August 2, 1958, an order of the Secretary announcing the agreement reached with respect to the Moose Range. 23 Fed. Reg. 5883. The order decreed that certain lands within the Range (essentially the southern half) "are hereby closed to oil and gas leasing because such activities would be incompatible with management thereof for wildlife purposes." It then provided:
The agreement was noted in the Anchorage land office on August 4, 1958, and 10 days later respondents filed their applications.
Soon after the issuance of the regulation and the implementing order, the pending applications were acted upon; within the next two months, 294 leases covering 621,234 acres were issued in the area subject to Executive Order No. 8979, in response to applications (including those of the Griffin lessees) filed in 1954 and 1955. When these figures are added to those covering leases issued prior to 1958 (primarily those in the Swanson River area), it appears that in the area subject to Executive Order No. 8979, the Secretary issued a total of 331 leases covering 696,680 acres on applications filed during the period the Court of Appeals held that the area was closed to leasing. Thus, prior to the commencement of the instant suit, the Secretary had leased substantially the entire area
When faced with a problem of statutory construction, this Court shows great deference to the interpretation given the statute by the officers or agency charged with its administration. "To sustain the Commission's application of this statutory term, we need not find that its construction is the only reasonable one, or even that it is the result we would have reached had the question arisen in the first instance in judicial proceedings." Unemployment Comm'n v. Aragon, 329 U.S. 143, 153. See also, e. g., Gray v. Powell, 314 U.S. 402; Universal Battery Co. v. United States, 281 U.S. 580, 583. "Particularly is this respect due when the administrative practice at stake `involves a contemporaneous construction of a statute by the men charged with the responsibility of setting its machinery in motion, of making the parts work efficiently and smoothly while they are yet untried and new.' " Power Reactor Co. v. Electricians, 367 U.S. 396, 408. When the construction of an administrative regulation rather than a statute is in issue, deference is even more clearly in order.
In the instant case, there is no statutory limitation involved. While Executive Order No. 8979 was issued by the President, he soon delegated to the Secretary full power to withdraw lands or to modify or revoke any existing withdrawals. See Executive Order No. 9146, 7 Fed. Reg. 3067; Executive Order No. 9337, 8 Fed. Reg. 5516; Executive Order No. 10355, 17 Fed. Reg. 4831. Public Land Order No. 487 was issued by the Secretary himself.
Moreover, as the discussion in Section I of this opinion demonstrates, the Secretary has consistently construed Executive Order No. 8979 and Public Land Order No. 487 not to bar oil and gas leases.
The Secretary's interpretation had, long prior to respondents' applications, been a matter of public record and discussion. The agreement worked out with the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries in 1956, and the approval of the Swanson River leases pursuant thereto,
If, therefore, the Secretary's interpretation is not unreasonable, if the language of the orders bears his construction, we must reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals.
Executive Order No. 8979, 6 Fed. Reg. 6471, provided:
"Settlement," "location," "sale" and "entry" are all terms contemplating transfer of title to the lands in question. It was therefore reasonable for the Secretary to construe "or other disposition" to encompass only dispositions which, like the four enumerated, convey or lead to the conveyance of the title of the United States—for example, "grants" and "allotments." Cf. Opinion of the Solicitor, 48 I. D. 459 (1921).
The reference in Executive Order No. 8979 to the 1926 and 1927 statutes also lends support to the Secretary's interpretation. For both statutes relate to leasing rather than alienation of title; it would be reasonable to infer from their specific addition that "disposition" was not intended to encompass leasing.
It is true that the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit squarely held this language to be sufficient to authorize withdrawals from oil and gas leasing. Moreover, this Court affirmed, albeit on an alternative theory: that the Mineral Leasing Act merely authorized and did not compel the issuance of prospecting permits. 283 U. S., at 419. However, a word of history will place Wilbur in context and thereby demonstrate its irrelevance to the problem here. Prior to 1920, oil and gas rights in public lands were acquired in the same way as rights in other minerals—by a form of "location." One staked out a location and prospected for oil or other minerals; upon making a discovery, he became entitled to a patent to the land as well as the minerals. In 1909, responding to rapid reserve depletion in certain areas, the Interior Department issued an order pursuant to Presidential authorization:
The power of the executive to make the withdrawal was upheld by this Court in 1915 in United States v. Midwest Oil Co., 236 U.S. 459. In the meantime, however, Congress had, pursuant to the President's request, sought to remove all doubts about the legality of such orders by granting to him, in the Pickett Act, discretionary authority to withdraw public lands from "settlement, location, sale, or entry."
The Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 changed the procedure for acquiring oil and gas rights in public lands: the Secretary was empowered to issue prospecting permits and required, in the event a discovery was made under the permit, to issue a lease which entitled the lessee to extract the mineral, but gave him no right in the land itself.
The placement of the fish trap exception—"(except for fish trap sites)"—a phrase admittedly not relating to alienation of title to land, does tend to cut against the Secretary's interpretation of Executive Order No. 8979. However, it appears that the exception was designed to assure the Alaskans, whose livelihood is largely dependent on the salmon catch, that they could continue—despite the order—to use fish traps. Cf. Organized Village of Kake v. Egan, 369 U.S. 60. Since it was a reassurance not technically necessary and therefore not functionally related to any part of the regulation, it is no surprise to find it carelessly placed. Compare Executive Order No. 8857, 6 Fed. Reg. 4287, establishing the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. We do not think the position of the fish trap exception is sufficient to justify a court's overturning the Secretary's construction as unreasonable.
Public Land Order No. 487 withdrew the lands it covered from "settlement, location, sale or entry," but contained no reference to "other disposition." Nor did it contain anything analogous to the fish trap exception. The reasonableness of the Secretary's interpretation of Public Land Order No. 487 therefore follows a fortiori from the reasonableness of his construction of Executive Order No. 8979.
MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS and MR. JUSTICE HARLAN took no part in the decision of this case.
"Residents of Alaska and major oil companies have continued to file lease applications and send exploratory parties into various parts of the Territory. The Kenai Moose Reserve on the Kenai Peninsula is covered with 325 lease applications awaiting decision of the Secretary of the Interior as to what stipulations for the protection of wildlife should be inserted in leases, if they are issued."
Rep. Alaska Gov. 60-61 (1955); see also Rep. Secy. Int. 65 (1953).
In further support of the claim that the 1955 regulation is worthless as an indication of the pre-existing status of the lands covered thereby, respondents urge that Appendix B listed "wildlife refuges which were closed by the terms of the orders creating them." However, of the 176 refuges listed in Appendix B, respondents point to only one: the Salt Plains in Oklahoma. Moreover, only a small part of the Salt Plains (543 acres out of over 30,000) was specifically withdrawn from appropriation under the mining and mineral-leasing laws Public Land Order No. 144, 8 Fed. Reg. 9430. It is therefore doubtful that a simple listing in Appendix B of the "Salt Plains," large parts of which were admittedly open to leasing prior to 1955, was intended to open the small area closed by Public Land Order No. 144.
"Well, we have pending, and have had for 2 or 3 or more years, applications for leases in the Kenai moose range, and a few leases were issued in there, and that is where the discovery was made. But, shortly after that time, the Secretary suspended all leasing in the moose range . . . and he has never lifted it yet . . . . So we have not been able to do much business up there except to a very limited extent."
Hearings before the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs on H. R. 8054, 85th Cong., 2d Sess., p. 77.
Respondents point to the fact that in a Press Release dated January 29, 1958, announcing the forthcoming (August) order, the Secretary had indicated that he was "opening" a part of the Moose Range to leasing. The choice of this term is wholly understandable in view of the facts that general instructions to local offices not to take final action on lease applications had been outstanding since 1953, and that the regulations of January 8, 1958, had provided that no new applications would be accepted for filing until a subsequent order was issued specifying the lands which would not be subject to leasing. Therefore, the order of August 2, 1958, did, in these two senses, "open" the Range to leasing.