Jun 29 2018
How did it come to pass that the federal government owns nearly half of the land in the West, compared to just 5 percent of the land in the East?
Throughout 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.
The cornerstone of this policy was the Homestead Acts, which transferred 270 million acres of land out of federal control and into the hands of ordinary Americans.
The Homestead Acts were an engine for middle class opportunity and growth, and set the American standard for the disposition of public resources.
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 for example. At one point, the federal government controlled more than 90 percent of their land. Today they own just 1 percent.
At first westerners were optimistic about federal control of western lands. Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot advocated for active management of the land, in cooperation with local interests.
But in the 1960s and 1970s environmental activists began exploiting public fears about overpopulation and pollution.
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 This repealed the Homestead Acts and completely upended federal government’s public land policy.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.
Things have only gotten worse since. An even more extreme environmental movement - an alliance of privilege between celebrities, activists, and corporate elites - now 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 where they can jet in, spend a few days at the cabin, take pictures of animals, and then retreat to their enclaves on the coasts.
Locals aren’t as lucky. While tourism has contributed much to Western state economies, communities can’t survive on tourism alone. It is a complement to – not a substitute – for broader economic development.
Our immediate task is to rein in 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, the Protecting Utah’s Rural Communities Act, would protect Utah from future Antiquities Act abuses by giving Utah the same protections currently 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.
The second bill I plan to introduce is a new Homestead Act – one to help ordinary Americans in the 21st century.
This “new” Homestead Act would allow states, local governments, and individuals to petition the government to use federal land for affordable housing, and possibly for education, healthcare, or a variety of other purposes.
Finally, 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.
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 have the opportunity to honor the promise the federal government made to Utah and Western states when they joined the Union.
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.
Let’s insist on a reassertion of the American people’s control over their government and of their land.
A longer version of this speech was given at The Sutherland Institute on June 29, 2018.