It was 170 years ago that Brigham Young and the first group of Mormon pioneers came to the Salt Lake Valley in search of religious freedom… and, finally, a land of their own in which to practice it.
It is easy to take for granted, or to forget. But so much of American history – and of human happiness – has depended on the ability of ordinary people to have a part of this earth they can call their own, “to dress it and keep it.”
Yet, Utahns, and the citizens of many Western states, find themselves singled out for exclusion from this basic tenet of the American Dream.
How did it come to pass that the Land of the Free became a land of stunning inequality? Where nearly half of the land in the West—more than 600 million acres — is owned by the federal government, compared to just 5 percent of the land in the East?
This question leads to an old story that dates back hundreds of years before the founding of our Republic. So let’s begin at the beginning.
In medieval England, kings and princes liked to hunt.
So prized was “royal game” like stags and boars that kings created so-called “royal forests”—massive game preserves intended to protect wildlife and scenery for the exclusive entertainment of the nobility.
In many cases, these select forests had been used productively by ordinary Englishmen and women for centuries - for fuel, food, and fodder; and for ingress and egress. Many subjects even lived within the confines of the forest themselves.
What do you think happened to those people when their backyards were turned into playgrounds for faraway elites?
Well, they were kicked off their land. Their houses were razed and their historic rights trampled. Denied access to even the modest resources on which they had long depended, underprivileged Englishmen and women saw their limited economic opportunity cut back even further.
At their height, the royal forests enveloped a full third of southern England.
Royal decrees forbade any activities in the forests that would detract from their pristine condition.
Lastly—and this is an important point—the royal forests of medieval England were maintained for the enjoyment of an economic and political elite with no real connection to the lands in question.
As I said, an old story, but a familiar one.
Today, the federal government has declared more than 100 million acres of land to be wilderness, off-limits to development of any kind.
Today the federal government’s “royal forest” encompasses a full third of the land in the entire United States—and two-thirds of the land in the state of Utah.
And just as in feudal England, the federal government’s vast estate is preserved for the enjoyment of the very few: For an upper-crust elite who want to transform the American West into so many picturesque tourist villages and uninhabited vistas.
These elites like to say that America’s federal lands are an inheritance for every American. But the benefits they extol seem primarily to flow their way.
They get their playgrounds in Aspen and Moab. They get their rustic cabins, craft breweries, and artisanal coffee shops.
And the actual inhabitants of these locales are forgotten, left behind in communities that are being throttled by their federal landlord.
They get to sell the family farm after generations of ownership.
They get told that the grazing their family has accessed for generations is illegal.
They get to watch their children grow up, anxious in the knowledge that there is no future for them in their own home town.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
America was founded in defiance of the oppressive feudalism that our ancestors left behind.
The Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution threw off that yoke.
In America, there would be no king. No feudal master. No royal forests.
It was George Washington himself who wrote that, in America, “an enterprising man with very little money may lay the foundation of a noble estate.”
And here, for the first time in history, millions of enterprising young men and women did just that. They purchased their plot, cared for it, and passed it along to their children better than they had found it.
This defined federal land policy from the founding through much of the 19th century.
Lawmakers sought to facilitate expansion of the nation by acquiring land—and then transferring it to the people, so they could live out their lives as responsible citizens of the republic.
As our friends at the Bureau of Land Management themselves have said: “land disposals built the country’s economic foundations, opened the West to settlement, and united the vast expanses of land into one nation.”
To be sure, some of these land transfers were better than others. Congress gave away millions of acres to the robber barons in the railroad industry cronyism at its worst.
But Congress also passed the Homestead Acts, which still stand among the great accomplishments of the Republic – and the Republican Party.
The Homestead Acts transferred 270 million acres of land out of federal control and into the hands of ordinary Americans Civil War veterans penniless immigrants emancipated African-Americans.
It was an engine for middle class opportunity and growth, and set the American standard for the disposition of public resources.
Homesteaders used their small patches of dirt to start farms and families in what is today the nation’s bread basket.
Because of the Homestead Act, practically all of the fertile land in the Midwest is in private hands.
But the Homestead Acts ran into trouble as Americans moved further West.
As the Mormon pioneers discovered, the West was a beautiful place, but it was also a rugged place.
Much of the land wasn’t fit for agriculture. It was fit only for grazing livestock. And even then, a ranch needed hundreds of acres of pasture to be viable.
But by the time Utah and other states entered the Union, Congress had turned its attention elsewhere. Manifest destiny left us behind.
While Easterners and Midwesterners had almost-total control of the land within their boundaries, Western states like Utah entered the Union on inferior terms – as tenants to negligent landlords.
When Utah came into the Union in 1896, Section 9 of its statehood enabling legislation declared that public land located within the state “shall be sold by the United States subsequent to the admission of said state into the union.”
The promise to sell federal lands in Utah is right there, enshrined in federal law. But, unlike states farther East, the commitment to us was never honored.
Take Illinois and Missouri, for example. At one point, the federal government controlled more than 90 percent of their land.
While they were ultimately successful in petitioning Congress to transfer their public lands from federal to state management, Western states have not been so lucky.
This runs afoul of the general principle that new states should enter the Union on “equal footing” with existing states.
Fifty, sixty, even seventy percent of the land within Western states’ boundaries was – and remains – controlled by Washington.
There was a time when this arrangement held some promise. It was a time of great optimism about what “scientific management” of public lands could do.
Early conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot saw the lands of the west as boon to the American people, especially the people who lived there. They advocated for active management of the land, in cooperation with local interests.
But in time, this optimism about what government could accomplish was overtaken by pessimism – even contempt – for what ordinary citizens and communities could do without oversight from Washington.
Elite publications began to fill up with denunciations of supposed backwoods bumpkins who were ruining the environment to make a quick buck.
Settlers who had lived on a plot of land for years were branded as squatters.
Families who heated their stoves with wood from the forests were branded as timber thieves.
Native Americans who hunted wild game in order to eat were branded as poachers.
This crackdown led to a renewed struggle for the land between government and people.
In time, old-school conservationists gave way to a new breed of environmentalists, who saw Westerners not as owners or beneficiaries of the land at all, but as threats to it.
And so, if the Earth was to be saved, humans had to be kept away.
They had to be kicked off of the land and out of the forests, like the peasants of old.
This was a radical assault on economic opportunity and the American middle class. And it worked.
Environmental activists made swift progress in the 1960s and ‘70s by exploiting public fears about overpopulation and pollution.
The activists used land-use restrictions as an “all-purpose tool for stopping economic activity,” in the words of political scientist R. McGreggor Cawley.
Between the mid-1960s and 1980, the amount of wilderness rose from 11.5 million acres to 82.7 million acres—an increase of 716% in less than two decades.
The amount of grazing on federal land went into steep decline, causing an exodus from the range that was never reversed.
And in 1976, Congress formalized federal control over federal lands by passing the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. This repealed the Homestead Acts and completely upended federal government’s public land policy.
No longer would it be the official policy of the United States government to sell back the land and entrust it to the people. Instead, the policy would be to keep the land for itself.
The king’s forests would be back forever.
That, more or less, is where things stand today.
The federal government maintains its stranglehold on the West.
And the environmental movement is still with us, although without the purity and common sense of its former self.
The radical wing of the environmental movement today is a multi-billion dollar juggernaut that uses its cultural and economic influence to rig the game against hard- working rural America.
It is an alliance of privilege between a new class of royalty: celebrities, activists, and corporate elites who want to save the Earth at the expense of our rural communities.
They delight in seeing vast swathes of untouched lands, fulfilling their idyllic notions of the West.
They envision a landscape dotted only with picturesque resort towns that exist for their pleasure: destinations where they can jet in, spend a few days at the cabin and the shops, take a few pictures of some animals, and then retreat to their enclaves on the coasts.
A charming picture—for them.
Less charming is the picture for the people who live in these areas full time. While tourism has contributed much to the West, communities can’t survive on it alone.
It is a complement to – not a substitute – for broader economic development.
We ought not limit the job opportunities in our rural regions to just one industry.
Rural Americans want what all Americans want: a dignified, decent-paying job. A family to love and support. A healthy community whose future is determined by local residents—not by their self-styled betters thousands of miles away.
But most of all, Americans want respect. That is the missing ingredient whose absence drives so much anger and heartbreak in our politics today.
The greatness of the American project was that it respected ordinary people enough to give them control of the government, starting with the land on which they lived.
That respect is too often missing in today’s distant, condescending government.
Our immediate task is to rein in that government, and reclaim a space for ordinary Americans to live in freedom.
I am working on three specific bills to do just that.
The first will combat the abuses of the Antiquities Act.
Passed in 1906, this law authorizes the president to unilaterally designate national monuments on federal lands with the intent of protecting historic landmarks and archeological sites.
These protections might sound beneficial, but they also impose severe restrictions and regulations on the surrounding localities.
This is why the law also directs the president to limit monument designations to the “smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”
But as Utahns are all too aware, recent presidents have largely disregarded this part of the law. They have wielded it more as a political tool to appease friendly interest groups and wealthy donors than as a genuine preservation tool.
Utah, in particular, has suffered from blatant abuses of the Antiquities Act over the last two decades.
President Clinton’s sweeping designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996, and President Obama’s designation of Bears Ears National Monument in 2016, monopolized millions of acres across the state.
And what’s worse, neither had approval from the governor, the state legislature, the state’s congressional delegation, county commissioners, or the affected communities.
To protect Utah from future abuses under the Antiquities Act, I am introducing the Protecting Utah’s Rural Communities Act, which includes protections similar to those enjoyed by Wyoming and Alaska.
Specifically, my bill would prohibit the president from designating or expanding a national monument in the state unless both Congress and the state legislature pass resolutions approving the designation.
This would be a great victory for Utahns – a step in the right direction of entrusting them with what should be their land.
The second bill I plan to introduce is a new Homestead Act – one to help ordinary Americans in the 21st century.
There is already a law on the books called the Recreation and Public Purposes Act, which allows the Secretary of the Interior to transfer federal lands to state and local governments and nonprofit groups for certain recreational and public uses.
What if we use the Recreation and Public Purposes Act as a model for new legislation to facilitate the building of affordable housing, to help alleviate the growing housing crisis facing working Americans?
A “new” Homestead Act could expand the law to allow states, local governments, and individuals to petition the government to use that land for affordable housing… or education… or health care or research.
Utah’s housing prices continue to sky-rocket, leaving affordable housing out of reach for far too many. Meanwhile, millions of acres of land sit untouched.
It is important to note here that we are not talking about national parks or monuments. We Utahns are certainly not opposed to having picturesque vistas or preserving national treasures.
But we are talking about the ordinary land that is just sitting there, unused and under a federal stranglehold.
How much would an infusion of affordable land into our economy help young couples and families being priced out of expensive cities and the best suburban school districts?
For that matter, just imagine what opening up this land would do for young entrepreneurs, or to attract existing businesses to create new jobs.
How many schools, churches, hospitals, medical research centers, innovation hubs, and affordable homes could we build even on just a fraction of this land?
Extremists fear what this land will allow us to do to each other. But the land is supposed to be about what we can do for each other. Utahns understand that better than anyone, and should be given the chance.
With this in mind, if we are to address the underlying problem, our long-term goal must be the transfer of federal lands to the states. And that is the aim of the third bill that I intend to introduce.
For it is only when the states – and the people who actually live, work, and recreate there – control their lands that we can truly make progress in this space.
This is an enormous task – nothing that can be accomplished overnight.
So I ask you all to help me in this effort and take action.
Many of you in this room are already doing tremendous work on this issue. The state legislature’s work on the Transfer of Public Lands Act is especially impressive and, in typical Utah fashion, has paved a path for other Western states to follow.
My colleagues and I in the Utah congressional delegation have also campaigned on these issues for years.
We all agree on the problem. We all know the impact federal lands have on the lives of everyday Utahns. And we all know the real solution is to actually transfer these lands to the people.
Small reforms here and there are important. But we have to start pushing for what we actually want. We must fight to return these lands.
We must give speeches, talk to our neighbors, write op-eds, take tough votes, write legislation, and stick our necks out to push for these bills. It will take years, and the fight will be brutal.
But it’s time for us to now make good on those promises and make the American Dream real at last for the families and communities current policy is leaving behind.
And moreover, we have the opportunity to honor the promise the federal government made to Utah and Western states when they joined the Union.
This is enough to keep us occupied for a while.
Our ultimate task is to restore the Founders’ vision of localism and self-government.
When ordinary Americans control their communities and land, it is good for both.
When the federal government wields exclusive control, it is good for neither.
We live in an amazing land. A land that drew—and continues to draw—countless immigrants in search of a better life.
Brigham Young and the pioneers braved incredible hardships in order to settle here, in Utah.
What can we say to them, who sacrificed so much, if we give up our freedom and accept the casual tyrannies of the Old World?
This is not a fiefdom of kings or royal forests. It is a constitutional republic for all, not the select.
Federal domination of the West tests our commitment to that principle.
But we can resist it, and gradually give power back to the people.
I began this speech with a story from history, about how generations of greedy kings took control of their subjects’ land for their own enjoyment.
It’s a sad story, but even then, it had a happier ending.
By the 13th century, anger over the royal forests had reached a boiling point. England was wracked with turmoil and unrest.
This conflict was brought to an end when King Henry III signed a peace treaty in which he agreed to reconsider the boundaries of the royal forest and pardon forest crimes.
That document was called the Charter of the Forest. You probably haven’t heard of it.
But you may have heard of the companion document, which King Henry III reissued at the same time: the Magna Carta, originally issued by King John – the great constitution of liberty that centuries later influenced our Founding Fathers.
If the subjects of feudal England could bring about this momentous change, how much more can we do as free citizens in the greatest country – and the finest land – the world has ever known?
Let’s insist on a reassertion of the American people’s control over their government and of their land.
Speech was delivered at the Sutherland Institute