It is often said we now live in two Americas. Nowhere is that description truer than when it comes to land owned by the federal government.
In the United States east of the Rockies, the federal government owns just 4 percent of all land. But west of the Rockies, the federal government owns more than half of all land including almost two thirds of all land in Utah.
When an unelected and unaccountable bureaucracy owns and manages more than half the land in your state, that is a recipe for disaster.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Section 9 of the federal legislation that created Utah said that federally owned land within the state of Utah, “shall be sold by the United States subsequent to the admission of said state into the union.”
Similar language in enabling acts for Missouri and North Dakota were honored. Almost all of the federally owned land in those states was sold decades ago.
But Congress has not honored that promise to sell federal land in Utah or most of the west. They should. Sen. Lee is fighting to make Congress keep that promise and to mitigate the damage the federal government is inflicting on rural communities in the meantime.
In its current form, the Great American Outdoors Act enables the federal government to purchase new lands in perpetuity through the Land and Water Conservation Fund – spending massive amounts of money without accountability, oversight, or any measures to make sure it can actually care for the land that it owns. This will only further grow the already vast federal estate, and will mean further devastating consequences for our lands and the people who live, work, and recreate on them.
Below are three amendments I have drafted to address some of the shortcomings of this legislation.
Signed into law in 1906, the Antiquities Act gives the president the power to unilaterally designate tracts of federal land as “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.”
The purpose of the law is to enable the Executive to act quickly to protect archeological sites on federal lands from looting, destruction, or vandalism.
But the Antiquities Act was designed to have limits. It instructs the president to restrict the designation of national monuments to the “smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”
This is not how President Clinton acted when created the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996, and it is not how President Obama is threatening to act by creating a Bears Ears monument this year.
The American people deserve a voice in how federal land is managed. That is why Sen. Lee has offered an amendment to the Antiquities Act that would still allow the president to designate land as a monument, but then states and Congress would have to then ratify that decision before it could become permanent.
Land owned by the federal government is beyond local government jurisdiction, including taxing jurisdiction. This means many rural western counties lack the property tax base that urban and eastern counties take for granted.
There is a program, “Payment in Lieu of Taxes,” that compensates rural counties for this loss of revenue, but Congress does not fully fund this program every year. Ultimately, Congress should honor its promise to sell federal land in western states. But until then, they should at least make rural counties financially whole.