A Public Lands Discussion with Senator Mike Lee
The following is a transcript of Senator Mike Lee’s remarks during a public lands discussion sponsored by Sutherland Institute.
Federal Lands and Royal Forests
By Sen. Mike Lee
Thanks so much, Rick. It’s great to be with you today at the Sutherland Institute. And my only complaint today is that you couldn’t have found a more picturesque venue – one with a view of something actually beautiful. [gestures to picture windows] [laughter]
There’s no place I’d rather be than Utah in June. And there’s no place in the state I’d rather be right now than right here – this is absolutely breathtaking, and I think it’s an appropriate venue for us to be discussing some of the things we’ve to got to discuss here.
I can tell that Sutherland is under good leadership under [Rick Larsen’s] watch. I’m sure you cleaned the place up after Boyd Matheson just left everyone shell-shocked, with his acts of violence, and profanity riddling every conversation. [laughter] Sutherland contributes meaningfully to civil discourse and dialogue in our state and our country – and it’s part of a network of think tanks that really do think and that add meaningfully to questions of public policy and how we approach them.
So I thank you for what you do here and thank you for the opportunity to speak.
It was 170 years ago that Brigham Young and the first group of Mormon pioneers came to settle in this valley, in the Salt Lake Valley, in search of religious freedom… and to find finally a land in which they could practice their religion free from interference. Now – as legend has it – when they arrived in this valley there were exactly two trees standing in the valley. I have no idea whether that’s actually true, but I kind of like the story nonetheless because it illustrates a point. It illustrates first of all that Brigham Young was making a bold statement when he said, “Yeah, this is the place.” And it also shows that a lot of people were willing to follow him and trust him when he said this is the place, if in fact they saw only two trees in the entire valley. But they made it their home and they made the desert blossom like a rose. And it’s worked out exceptionally well – and that’s a gross understatement.
It is easy to take for granted, or to forget, but so much of American history – and so much of human happiness generally – not just in Utah, not just in the United States – but throughout the world, throughout the history of human beings, so much has depended on the ability of ordinary people to have a part of the earth that they call their own: a plot of land that they can have, that they can hold, “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 – and from this basic reality that I described as an important part of the human condition. So how did it come to pass that the land of the free became in some respects the land of stunning inequality? Where nearly half of the land in the West – nearly 600 million acres – is owned by the federal government, compared to just 5 percent of the land in the East? This is a very significant difference.
This question leads back to a story that is older than the state of Utah. In fact, it’s a story that dates back many hundreds of years, before the founding of our Republic, and not just the founding or the settling of our state. So, let’s begin at the beginning.
In medieval England, kings and princes, along with other royalty, liked to hunt.
But they liked to hunt on their own terms and their own places, where they wouldn’t have interference from others. So prized was “royal game” like stags and boars that kings created so-called “royal forests” – set-asides, massive game preserves that were intended to protect wildlife and scenery – not for the people as a whole, but for the exclusive access and entertainment and enjoyment of nobility.
In many cases, these select forests had themselves been used productively for generations, perhaps for centuries, by ordinary Englishmen and ordinary Englishwomen – for fuel, for food, for fodder; and of course, for ingress and egress, for getting to and from the places they needed to go. These are the essential ingredients, by the way, for human survival and human thriving. People need access to food and they need access to each other. Without those things, people can’t settle. You can’t have a thriving human condition. You certainly can’t have communities developing. Now, at this time when these royal forests were established, there were many commoners who even lived within the confines of what would become the royal forest themselves.
So what do you think happened to those same people when their own backyards – in some cases their own homes – were turned into playgrounds for faraway elites? It wasn’t pretty, as you might well imagine. It didn’t go over particularly well with those who lived closest to or even on that land.
They were kicked off their land. Their houses in some cases were razed and their historic rights trampled – ignored – and sooner or later just written out of the collective consciousness, denied access to even the modest resources on which they had long depended. These commoners, these underprivileged Englishmen and women, saw their limited economic opportunity become even more limited, and already difficult circumstances became even more dire.
At their height, the royal forests enveloped a full third of southern England. So these were not small. These weren’t limited narrow playgrounds. This was a substantial portion of the countryside. And to these people who lived on or near these royal forests, this was everything. This was in fact their world as they knew it. Now, to be clear, the restrictions applicable to this land were significant.
Royal decrees forbade any activities in the forests whatsoever that would degrade or reduce or minimize their pristine condition.
Lastly – and this is an important point – the royal forests of medieval England were maintained for the enjoyment – the exclusive enjoyment – of an economic and political elite with no real connection to the lands in question. Those who wanted to use these lands for their exclusive enjoyment were not the people who were closest and most connected to this land. They were from someplace else.
Now, as I said, this is an old story. And it’s a story that took place many thousands of miles from here. But in some respects it’s a familiar story. It’s a story that resonates with some of us in the western United States.
Today, the federal government has declared more than 100 millionacres of land to be wilderness and therefore 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 it encompasses a staggering two-thirds of the land in the state of Utah.
And just as was the case in feudal England, in the example I just described a few minutes ago, the federal government’s vast estate is reserved in many respects 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 so many uninhabited but nonetheless beautiful vistas.
These elites like to say that America’s federal lands are an inheritance for every American, for all to enjoy. They’re lands for the public, and therefore for every member of the public to enjoy equally. But the benefits they extol seem primarily to flow their way, and the burdens associated with those benefits tend to flow in a different direction – in the direction of those who live close to those very lands.
They – meaning the elites, who often live very far from here – get their playgrounds in places like Aspen, in places like Moab. They get their rustic cabins, their craft breweries, their artisanal coffee shops, their bed and breakfasts.
And the actual inhabitants of these locales are often forgotten, left behind in communities that are being throttled by excessive federal control.
They get to sell the family farm after generations of ownership.
They get told that the grazing rights their family has accessed for generations is now illegal.
They get to watch their children grow up, anxious in the knowledge that there is no future for them in their own hometown and the place where they and their families have lived for generations.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It didn’t need to be like this. It doesn’t always have to be like this.
America, you see, was founded in absolute defiance of the oppressive feudalism that our ancestors deliberately 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. In America, the power exercised in government would be diffused. We’d go to great lengths even to the point of making our government unwieldy and inefficient to make sure that there wasn’t too much concentration of too much power in the hands of the few. So things like this couldn’t and wouldn’t ever happen.
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 it was this way from the beginning. It was certainly this way when Alexis de Tocqueville visited America and explained why it was that the American Revolution ended very differently from the French Revolution – explaining that this was a place where upward mobility, as we now describe that phenomenon, was not only a real possibility but it was a fairly frequent occurrence.
And here, for the first time in history, millions of enterprising men and women did just that. They purchased their plot, they cared for it, and they passed it along to their children – and they passed it along to their children in a condition better than the condition in which they originally found it.
This, you see, defined federal land policy from the founding of this country through at least much of the 19th century.
Lawmakers sought to facilitate – affirmatively sought to facilitate – expansion of the nation by acquiring land – and then transferring that land to the people, so that they could live out their lives as responsible citizens of the republic.
As our friends at the Bureau of Land Management, if we may call them our friends, have themselves said: “land disposals built the country’s economic foundations, opened the West to settlement, and united the vast expanses of land into one nation.” Those are their words, not mine. But I agree with them, in that instance. They’re right, in that instance. We should celebrate the fact that they’re right, in that instance.
To be sure, some of these land transfers were more noble and praiseworthy than others. Congress gave away many millions of acres to the robber barons in the railroad industry – some of this represented cronyism at its worst. We can see that perhaps better today with the historical hindsight that we now have.
But Congress also did a lot of things that were laudable, that didn’t amount to crony capitalism – amounted rather to sound and laudable public policy that would allow
for the flourishing of the human condition, would allow for the development of America’s poor and middle class, would allow for the development of the greatest civilization, the strongest economy the world has ever known; allowed for the creation of a society in which a person could be born into poverty and proceed through life with the reasonable hope and expectation that one day he or she would be able to retire comfortably and live out their final years in happiness and in peace.
Congress during this time did some good things with land. Among other things, Congress passed the Homestead Acts, which still stand among the great accomplishments of the Republic – and, I would add here parenthetically, the Republican Party, but that’s a different story.
The Homestead Acts transferred 270 million acres of land out of federal control and into the hands of ordinary Americans. I’m’ not talking about corporate elites here, but ordinary Americans . . . Civil War veterans . . . penniless immigrants . . . emancipated African-Americans.
It was an engine for middle-class opportunity and growth, and it set the American standard for the disposition of public resources in a way that was sustainable and responsible and egalitarian and likely to produce a thriving, strong middle class, one that could help our republic survive.
Homesteaders used their small patches of dirt to start farms and families in what is today part of our country that we refer to as the breadbasket, where so much of our food is grown.
Because of the Homestead Act, practically all of the fertile land in the Midwest is in private hands. Private land – it’s a concept we don’t hear about all that much around here, but it does exist, and we’re fortunate that it exists in certain parts of the country that happens to grow a whole lot of our food.
But the Homestead Acts ran into trouble, or at least encountered a different set of circumstances, as Americans continued to move further West.
As the Mormon pioneers discovered, the West was a beautiful place. It was also a rugged place.
Much of the land wasn’t – at least at the time, deemed fit for agriculture, at least not deemed as fit for agriculture as some of the lands of the Midwest had been. It was fit in many cases for grazing livestock. And even then, a ranch needed hundreds of acres of pasture in order to be viable.
But by the time Utah and other states entered the Union, Congress had started turning much of its attention elsewhere. Manifest Destiny had left us behind, in some respects.
So 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 and forgetful landlords.
When Utah came into the Union formally in 1896, it did so through enabling legislation passed by Congress – just like any other state when it becomes a state, it has enabling legislation passed by Congress formally recognizing the existence – the creation – of a state and acknowledging the terms upon which it would be entering the Union. So in the case of Utah’s statehood enabling act – I’m pleased to be joined by House Speaker Greg Hughes, it’s always good to see you, Mr. Speaker – Section 9 of Utah’s statehood enabling act declared that public land located within the state – and I’m going to quote here – “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, in black and white, enshrined in federal law – not just any federal law, but the law that set the terms and conditions upon which our great state was entering the Union. But, unlike states farther East – states that, by the way, had similar commitments made in their enabling statutes when they were admitted into the Union many years earlier – unlike those states, and the commitments that were made to those states, the commitments made to Utah were not honored.
Take Illinois and Missouri, just to name a couple of examples. At one point, the federal government controlled more than 90 percent of their land. Illinois and Missouri. It’s not the case today – it’s much different today.
Dick Durbin is a colleague of mine from Illinois. He and I worked closely together on a number of issues. We work closely together on the Senate Judiciary Committee; we’re co-sponsors of a bill called the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. We’ve been co-sponsors of a number of bipartisan pieces of legislation. We agree on a lot of things. We don’t always agree on everything. And we sometimes disagree on questions of public land.
One day not too long ago – just a few months ago – he came by my office to talk to me about federal lands, on the federal lands issue and federal lands in Utah in particular. He wanted to find out why it was that I seemed to be – to put it mildly – less enthusiastic about some of his ideas about how much of our state should be placed in a wilderness category. Well, I broke out the maps and I explained the maps. I showed him what Utah looks like, in terms of an island archipelago of a little bit of private land, surrounded by a whole lot of federal land. I also explained to him what this landownership does to Utah’s poor and middle-class families, many of whom are deprived jobs and opportunities that they’ve relied on for decades – for generations – in order to survive.
Then I explained to him this feature of Utah’s enabling legislation – the fact that Utah had similar language in its enabling legislation as did his state of Illinois. And how it is that even though we had the same language in our respective states’ enabling acts, that language was honored with respect to his state but not mine. Utah has two-thirds of its land owned by the federal government today. Illinois, which once had 90 percent of its land owned by the federal government, now has much less than that owned by the federal government. Anyone want to guess how much of the land the federal government owns in Illinois?
About 1 percent. And so this, I explained to my dear distinguished friend and colleague Senator Durbin from Illinois, is something that needs to be taken into account by people who live east of Colorado. You see, in every state east of Colorado, the federal government owns 15 percent or less of the land. And it’s usually much much less than that – it’s usually in the single digits, often in the low single digits. In every state west of Colorado, the federal government owns more than 15 percent of the land, and in many cases – as is the case in Utah and Idaho and Nevada – it’s a whole lot more than that. So, while they were ultimately successful in petitioning Congress to transfer their lands from federal to state management – “they” meaning states like Illinois and Missouri – Western states have not been so lucky.
That is, by the way, what it took – they continued to petition until people in Washington, until people in Congress recognized the commitments that had been made and the needs that had to be satisfied. That’s why they were so fortunate. Western states haven’t been so fortunate, not to date. The fact that they haven’t runs afoul of the general principle that states should enter the Union on equal footing one with another. We are in fact a union, and as a union of states we need to be treated equally, and we need to be treated on equal terms when we enter the Union one with another.
Fifty, 60, even 70 percent of the land within many Western states’ boundaries was – and still remains today – controlled by a small handful of people in Washington, D.C. A lovely area, to be sure – we’ve got some great monuments there – but it’s thousands of miles away. And those people do not live here. Those people aren’t affected directly by what happens here. We are.
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 a boon to the American people, especially to the people who lived there, the people closest to those lands. They advocated for active management of the lands, in cooperation of course with local interests, to make sure that those local interests had their voices heard and their needs respected.
But in time – as so often happens with things like this – in time, this optimism waned. The optimism about what government could accomplish was overtaken by a particularly pernicious form of pessimism – even contempt, you might say – for what ordinary citizens and communities could do without direct oversight from Washington, D.C.; about what the peasants could do without the feudal lords, so to speak, in Washington, D.C., guiding them in that process, telling them what they could do and what they couldn’t do.
Elite publications began to fill up with denunciations of supposed backwoods bumpkins who were supposedly ruining the environment in order 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 became branded suddenly as timber thieves.
Native Americans who hunted wild game in order to eat were dismissed as poachers.
This crackdown led to a renewed struggle for the land, a struggle between the government and the people – not just any government, but that government way back there, the government thousands of miles away – in a struggle with the people right here closest to the lands that we’re talking about.
Now, 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. Humans were the threat. And the threat had to be kept away.
They had to be kicked off 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 on the American way of life, and on the small “r” republican form of government. 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 percent – this all in less than two decades.
The amount of grazing on federal land during the same period of time went into a steep decline, causing an exodus from the range – an exodus that, I would add here, has never reversed itself.
In 1976, Congress formalized federal control over federal lands by passing the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, or FLPMA, as it’s often affectionately, or unaffectionately, referred to here. This act – FLPMA – repealed the Homestead Acts and completely upended federal government’s public land policy. It changed it. It turned it on its head; it turned it around completely; it turned it inside out.
No longer would it be the official policy of the United States government to sell back the land and to entrust that land to the people – to the people closest to it, to the people most affected by it, to the people who are in the best condition to make use of it, to the people who themselves had the greatest interest and incentive in preserving it, in protecting it, in dressing it, in keeping it and making sure that it was put to good use and not wasted, not destroyed, not corrupted, not polluted. Instead, the policy of the federal government would be to keep the land – in perpetuity no less – 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 idealism and common sense of its former, original self.
You see, the radical wing of the environmental movement today has become a a multibillion-dollar juggernaut that uses its cultural and economic influence to rig the game against hard-working Americans, and against rural America in particular.
It is an alliance of privilege between a new class of royalty – sure, we don’t have the titles of nobility that existed in the old country, but this is a new class of royalty – one consisting of, among others, celebrities, activists, and corporate elites who act boldly in the name of wanting to save the Earth at the expense of our rural communities and of the hardworking Americans who live there.
They delight in seeing vast swaths of untouched lands, fulfilling their idyllic notions of the West. You see, people on the coasts, people in many of these heavily populated areas people – especially in our nation’s capital – sometimes actually refer to us in the West as “the square states.” I’m sure there’s a compliment in there somewhere. Maybe it’s easier for them to recognize us because of our shapes – because of the geometric features of our states compared to theirs. But in the so-called square states – they like this abstract concept of there being a lot of land. Land that’s just there, that’s just sitting, that’s open, that’s untouched, that cannot be accessed. It’s a little bit like a sand trap on a golf course. You can’t go in there. If you ever have to, you’ve got to take a rake with you, rake your way in, rake your way out. Change, alter, improve nothing.
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 elite enclaves on the coasts.
It’s a charming picture – for them. Also a charming picture for them is the idea of vast swaths of untouched land that they themselves may never visit, but they nonetheless like the fact that they themselves may never visit, and they especially like the fact that we who live close to that land may never visit.
Less charming is the picture for the people who actually live in these areas full time, who call those areas their home. While tourism has of course contributed much to the West – and while we celebrate and encourage and are very enthusiastic about tourism in Utah – communities can’t survive on tourism alone.
It is a complement to and not a substitute for broader economic development and broader economic opportunities.
We ought not limit the job opportunities in our rural regions to just one industry.
Rural Americans want what all Americans want: They want a dignified, decent-paying job, one that allows them to support their family. They want a family to love and to support. They want a healthy community whose future is determined by local residents coming together as members of a combined community – not by their self-styled betters who operate in their ivory towers thousands of miles away, sitting on papers, mountains of papers, bounded only by red tape.
But most of all, Americans want respect. That’s the missing ingredient, the absence of which drives so much of the anger and the heartbreak of our politics today.
The greatness of the American project was that it respected ordinary people enough to give them control of their government, starting with the land on which they lived.
That respect is too often missing, too often absent, too often almost unnoticeable in today’s distant, condescending government.
Our immediate task then is to rein in that government – and yes, I’m talking about that government in Washington, D.C. – and reclaim a space for ordinary Americans to live and prosper and succeed and thrive and reproduce in freedom.
I am working on three bills to do just that.
The first will combat the abuses of the Antiquities Act.
Passed in 1906, this law authorizes the president of the United States unilaterally to designate national monuments on federal lands with the intent of protecting historic landmarks and archaeological sites.
You see, the idea behind this was that there were some places on federal public land that might be looted, that might be destroyed. And it was a way to provide immediate protection from that type of destruction. So the idea was to give the president of the United States this power so that it can be exercised: if you see something really important on federal public land – designate it; let’s get it protected. These protections sound beneficial and in many ways they can be, but they also impose severe significant restrictions and regulations on the surrounding localities.
You see, there’s a lot of misinformation out there about the Antiquities Act, what it does, and what it doesn’t do, or the creation and the un-designation or the reduction of a designation of a national monument. People think that is changing the nature of the ownership of the land. It doesn’t generally do that.
Usually we’re talking about federal land and taking it from one level of classification to another, one level of federal control to an entirely different, tighter level of federal control. One but more deliberately excludes local residents, one that couldn’t care less about what local residents have to say about that very land. That’s why we find it so concerning. And so this is the very reason why that law – that same law, the same Antiquities Act passed in 1906 – contains protections in it. It directly limits the president in his exercise of his power to designate national monuments. And it tells him that he has to do so in the “smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”
Sounds great – and would be great if it were followed and respected, if the spirit of that were truly followed, respected and understood in Washington, D.C. Sadly, that hasn’t always been the case.
But as Utahns specifically are all too aware, recent presidents have largely disregarded this particular feature of the law – this particularly important part of the law. They have wielded it more as a political tool to appease friendly interest groups and wealthy donors from the coasts more than they have used it as a genuine preservation tool.
Utah, in particular, has suffered from blatant abuses of the Antiquities Act over the last couple of decades.
President Clinton’s sweeping designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996, and President Obama’s designation of the Bears Ears National Monument on December 28, 2016, just days before he left the Oval Office, monopolized millions of acres across the state. We’re talking about an amount of land that is larger than several U.S. states.
You see, this, I’m convinced, is how some of the people in Washington justify it: “They don’t need all that land. They’re the square states. They have land to spare. We don’t have to worry about some of that land being restricted.”
This is akin to saying we don’t have to worry about what’s dumped in the ocean. “It’s the ocean. It’s big. Dump whatever you want in it” – our environmentalist friends would never say that. We should never allow them to say we’ve got plenty of land – “it doesn’t matter what you do to the locals with that land.”
So you have these two sweeping, stunning abuses of the Antiquities Act. One in 1996. The other in 2016.
They were bad enough by themselves. But what’s worse, neither one of them had approval from Utah’s governor, or from Utah’s state legislature, or from Utah’s congressional delegation, or from the affected county commissioners, or the from affected communities themselves. Neither one of them had the support of any of these constituencies.
And in many cases, particularly as was the case with the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, it occurred entirely by surprise. And it was designated by a president who didn’t even bother to come into or near our state as he was doing it.
So to protect Utah from future abuses of the Antiquities Act, I am introducing the Protecting Utah’s Rural Communities Act, which includes protections similar to those enjoyed by Wyoming and by Alaska.
Now specifically, my bill would prohibit the president from designating or expanding a national monument within the state of Utah unless both Congress and the state legislature pass legislation approving said designation.
Now this would be a great victory for Utahns – a step in the right direction of entrusting them with what should be their land, which is important to their existence and their livelihood.
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 – some of you may be familiar with it – 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.
So we’ve already got that as a template, as a model. We already understand that there are some valid, legitimate reasons for which the federal government ought to hand over certain amounts of federal public land for certain uses. If federal law already recognizes that that’s a good thing to do for those purposes, then why not some other purposes that are every bit as legitimate as if not more legitimate than those purposes, including the recreational purposes mentioned in that earlier legislation? Just think with me here. Imagine with me here for a moment.
What if we used the Recreation and Public Purposes Act as a model for new legislation to facilitate the building of affordable housing, to help alleviate the growing affordable housing crisis facing so many working Utahns?
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 skyrocket, leaving affordable housing out of reach for an increasing number of poor and middle-class Utah families. Meanwhile, millions and millions of acres of land in Utah sit untouched.
It is important to note here that we are not talking about all federal public lands in Utah that would be on the table for this. In fact there are huge swaths of federal public land in Utah that we are purposely setting aside in this discussion. That would have no part in any of these kinds of reforms. We are not talking about national parks; we are not talking about existing national monuments. We Utahns are certainly not opposed to having picturesque vistas or to preserving national treasures.
Sometimes when we have these discussions, we’re immediately accused of and lampooned as if we were wanting to put a drilling rig under Delicate Arch. This is not what we’re talking about. Those aren’t the lands we’re talking about; those certainly aren’t the uses we’re discussing here.
But we are talking about the ordinary garden-variety land that is just sitting there, unused – unused purposely under a federal stranglehold that helps no one and hurts many, especially the poorest among us.
How much would an infusion of affordable land into our economy help young couples and families being priced out of expensive cities and some of the best suburban school districts?
For that matter, just imagine what opening up some of this land would do for young entrepreneurs, or what it would do to attract existing businesses to expand and to create new jobs.
How many schools, how many churches, how many hospitals, medical research centers, innovation hubs, and affordable homes could we build even on just a tiny 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. With each other. Utahns understand that better than anyone else. We should be given a chance.
With this in mind, if we’re 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 aim to introduce.
For it is only when the states – and the people who actually live, work, recreate and otherwise exist here – control their lands that we can truly make progress in this space.
This is an enormous task – certainly nothing that can be accomplished overnight. It wasn’t something that could be or was accomplished overnight in states like Missouri and Illinois, where the federal government once owned 90 percent of their land and now owns almost none of their land. So it’s not something that can happen immediately, but that doesn’t make the importance of the task any less immediate.
So I’ll ask all of you to help me in this effort, to help me take action.
Many of you in this room are already doing tremendous work on this issue. In fact, a number of the faces I see in the audience were early aggressive vocal pioneers in this area, and I thank you for informing me on this issue. I thank you for the work you’ve already done. The state legislature’s work on the Transfer of Public Lands Act is especially impressive and, in typical Utah fashion, it has paved a path for other Western states to follow as well.
My colleagues and I in the Utah delegation have also campaigned on these issues for years. We’ve talked about them for years. We’ve quoted on occasion lyrics by the Scottish rock band The Proclaimers: “I can’t understand why we let someone else rule our land, cap in hand.”
We all agree on the problem. We all know the impact federal lands have on the everyday lives of Utahns and we all know that the real solution is to actually transfer some of these lands to the people.
I emphasize again here the word “some” – some of these lands. So just to repeat again, we’re not talking about our national parks. We’re not talking about our national monuments. We’re not talking about declared wilderness. We’re talking about land that is sitting there – untouched, untouchable, garden-variety land.
Nor are we suggesting that public lands are not a good thing. In fact, if anyone understands that public lands are a great thing, it’s Utahns, and in fact, it’s the proponents of the very type of legislation that I’m talking about – of the type of legislation that you passed in the Utah legislature.
We know that. We like that. The question is not whether to have public lands. Some of the question involves how much of the land should be public. But a very, very important part of that question should involve which government owns, manages, regulates use of and access to that public land. Can you imagine, for instance, the outrage if any other landowner, any individual, any corporation, any nonprofit owned, say, five, six, seven percent of the land in our state, or 20 or 25 or 30 percent of the state? As chairman of the committee – on a subcommittee on antitrust and competition policy in the United States Senate, I can tell you that people would complain bitterly if any other landowner owned that much land in any place. Not sure that’s an issue that would be adjudicated by our subcommittee, but it’s an issue similar to the ones that we face all the time. When excessive power accumulates excessively in the hands of a few, people get nervous – understandably so, because that one landowner can lock everyone else out. That one landowner can keep people away from their homes, their farms. That one landowner can make people poor; that one landowner can kill jobs and entire communities along with those jobs.
So when we go back to the fact that it’s not just five, six, seven percent, not 10 percent, not 20 percent, not 25 percent – but two-thirds of the land in our state that is owned not by a corporate entity paying taxes but by a sovereign federal government that does not pay taxes – and allows us to access that land only on a “mother-may-I” basis that usually doesn’t result in a grant of permission – we’ve got a problem.
And that’s why we raise these questions here. The question is not whether to have public lands. We like those. The question is how much, and who runs it. And how much of it needs to be run from Washington, D.C., thousands of miles away. These are legitimate questions that have gone unasked and certainly unanswered for too many decades. That ends now.
Small reforms here and there are certainly important. But we have to start pushing for what we actually want, advancing the kind of vision that we actually aspire to. We must fight to return these lands to local control.
We must give speeches, talk to our neighbors, our family members – in Utah, a lot of us have a lot of those, even some crazy ones that we encounter on Thanksgiving – write op-eds, take tough votes, write legislation, and stick our necks out 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 to make the American Dream real at last for the families and communities current public policy is leaving behind.
And moreover, we have the opportunity to honor the very promise made by the federal government to Utah when it joined the Union in 1896 and the promise that it made to many of our peer Western states when they joined the Union in roughly the same era.
This is enough to keep us occupied for a while.
Our ultimate task is to restore the Founders’ vision of localism and self-government, you see, because it’s localism and self-government that inspires the creation of communities. It’s localism and self-government that has fostered the development of the greatest civilization the world has ever known. It’s localism and self-government that fosters the development of institutions of civil society – families, communities, charitable organizations, churches, synagogues, mosques, fraternal orders.
These are the kind of things that truly do make our country great, that make countries anywhere thrive to the extent they exist – but the muscle of those very institutions starts to atrophy when governments excessively flex their muscles. When those muscles go unchallenged, ours become weakened.
When ordinary Americans control their communities and control their land, it’s good for both.
When the federal government wields exclusive control, it’s good for neither and bad for both.
We live in an amazing land. And it’s a land that drew – and continues to draw – countless immigrants in search of a better life, in search of greater freedom, in search of opportunity.
Brigham Young and the early pioneers to our state braved incredible hardships to settle here, in Utah.
What can we say to them, who sacrificed so much, if we give up our freedom to accept the casual tyrannies of the Old World?
This is not a fiefdom of kings or royal forests. It’s a constitutional republic for all, not just the select.
Federal domination of the West tests our very commitment to this essential, fundamental, undeniable principle.
But we can resist it, and gradually give back power to the people, where it belongs.
Now, I began this speech with a story from history, about how generations of greedy kings took control of their subjects’ land for their own exclusive enjoyment, to the detriment of the poor and middle class who otherwise would have had access and previously did have access to the enjoyment of that land.
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 in large part because of this very issue.
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 the so-called forest crimes.
That document was called the Charter of the Forest. You probably haven’t heard of it. We don’t talk about it a lot these days. We probably should start talking about it a lot more.
But you may have heard of the companion document, which King Henry III reissued at the same time: the Magna Carta, which had originally been issued by King John but was reissued at the same time as the Charter of the Forest by King Henry III. Yes, that same Magna Carta – issued first under King John, reissued by King Henry III – that great document that served as a sort of proto constitution, a 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 of the greatest republic the world has ever known – and the very finest land that ever could exist on planet Earth? How much more can we do here? How much more must we do here in light of our opportunities and in light of our freedoms?
Let’s insist on reassertion of the American people’s control of their government … and of their own land.
Thank you very much.
 Bureau of Land Management. “Public Land Statistics, 2015.” https://www.blm.gov/public_land_statistics/pls15/pls2015.pdf
 The Lehrman Institute. “The Founders and the Pursuit of Land.” http://lehrmaninstitute.org/history/founders-land.html
 BLM. “Public Land Statistics, 2015.”
 Nelson, Robert. Public Land and Private Rights.
 Cawley, McGreggor. Federal Lands, Western Anger: The Sagebrush Rebellion and Environmental Politics.
Senator Mike Lee
- 2022 Congressional Series: Rep. John Curtis
- Aug 03 2022
- 10:00 am - 11:00 am