Feds broke a promise to Utah on land ownership

Why did the federal government keep so much land in western states while giving eastern states nearly all their land?

Why did the federal government keep so much land in Western states while giving Eastern states nearly all their land?

The following post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations.

When the Utah Legislature passed the Transfer of Public Lands Act (TPLA) in the 2012 general session, it did so for good reasons. The act was a response to 116 years of federal neglect for lands entrusted to it but never returned to Utah. The result is that the federal government owns over 60 percent of the land in Utah. The same is true for several Western states.

The real question is why?

Every state joining the Union did so through a contract with the federal government called an Enabling Act – every state has one and nearly all are identical in this one respect: Each Enabling Act contains the following language,

[T]he people inhabiting said territory do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within said territory….

That’s pretty clear, isn’t it? “Forever disclaim all right and title”? That means each state gave up its claim to lands now claimed by the federal government. The problem is that Midwestern and Eastern states have Enabling Acts containing the same language. In fact, I just read from the Enabling Act of Nebraska and the federal government owns only 1 percent of its land. Alabama, Louisiana, the Dakotas: Each have the same “forever disclaim” language in their Enabling Acts. And, yet, the federal government has claim to only 2.7 percent, 4.6 percent, 3.9 percent and 5.4 percent of the land in those states, respectively.

Again, why is the West treated differently? Why does the federal government own over 60 percent of the land in Utah?

As much as 90 percent of the land in Illinois and Missouri was once owned by the federal government. But not today. Today, hardly any land in those states is owned by the feds. Here’s today’s political lesson: The people of Illinois and Missouri banded together and demanded that the federal government return the land to these states – in other words, to do what the feds promised to do. Yep, that was a promise – a promise to those states and a promise to the State of Utah.

Public education in Utah might still be lower than other states even with control and ownership of federal lands, but at least Utahns would be able to make that decision if we controlled that land. The same can be said for opportunities to grow our economy and manage our abundant resources. The next time a firefighter dies putting out a blaze on federal land, you can blame the federal government – the feds’ mismanagement of these properties is legendary. They fiddle while Utah burns.

Thirty to 50 percent of most states’ revenues come from the federal government (40 percent here in Utah). Even the United States Government Accounting Office reports that federal finances are “unsustainable.” Most rural populations throughout the West receive federal funds through land-related programs such as payments in lieu of taxes, secure rural schools and mineral leases. We know now what happens in these rural areas when the feds begin sequestration. Let the Oregon woman who was savagely attacked and raped tell you. She called 911 in the face of pending threat only to be told that no public services were available to help her because of a lack of funds. The feds had not only shut down the main source of income in her county (logging) but sequestration cut federal offsets to her community.

Utah did the right thing in passing the Transfer of Public Lands Act. And I look forward to the federal lawsuit to come.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.

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  • jotab

    One of the reasons that you left out is that many of the Eastern states gave up their school trust lands and furthermore, in Utah’s enabling act, Utah was granted more trust lands than some states that were admitted to the Union earlier. Just some facts to consider.

    • Paul Mero

      I don’t hear the Eastern states complaining. Fact is, what those states lost they gained. I’m not willing to settle for having more of nothing than other states.

  • RD Hunt

    Its a waste of money, Utah will lose the lawsuit if it comes to that.

    And I haven’t heard any sound legal theory under which Utah could win such a fight, And I am pretty sure their is precedence on this one as other States have tried this before… and lost.

    Did the version of the bill that pays for the lawsuit via illegally taking funds from the student land fund pass, or is this at least paid for out of the State general fund?