Henry Lamb
Who owns the West?
By Henry Lamb
April 16, 2012

It's a fair question. The federal government claims ownership of most of the western states. Why?

In eleven western states, the federal government claims ownership of more than 50% of the land. Utah intends to get its land back. Utah's HR148, recently signed into law by the Governor, tells the federal government that federal land in Utah, other than specified national parks, monuments, and wilderness areas, will be taken by eminent domain by the state of Utah if it has not been transferred to the state by the end of 2014.

Democrats and environmental organizations say this Law is an exercise in futility, a waste of time. Republicans and producers believe that Utah was granted statehood on an "equal footing" with the original states. "Equal footing" means that the federal government should own no land in the state of Utah, since none of the original states contained land owned by the federal government. Republicans and business leaders contend that this is exactly what the term means. Democrats and environmentalists disagree.

In 1894, two years before Utah became a state, Congress enacted an "Enabling Act." This act says that:
    "...the people inhabiting said proposed State do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof; ...." (Section 3)
In the very next section, the act says that:
    "...the proposed State of Utah shall be deemed admitted by Congress into the Union, under and by virtue of this act, on an equal footing with the original States...." (Section 4)
It cannot be both ways. Chances are very good that the Supreme Court will have to resolve this conflict sooner or later. Utah is definitely moving forward with every intention of declaring eminent domain over those lands that the federal government now claims.

Utah's Enabling Act and its admission into the Union came at a time when the Progressive movement was gaining control over the federal government. Congress enacted the Forest Reserve Act of 1891. By 1908, Gifford Pinchot had talked President Theodore Roosevelt into setting aside 132-million acres of forest, 88% of today's forest reserves.

The conflict between Progressives and Capitalists continued, with official government policy being to get federal land into the hands of private owners as quickly as possible. The government gave land to people who would live on it for five years. It sold land for $1.25 an acre to people who would live on the land for six months. This policy ended in 1934, when Progressives were successful in enacting the Taylor Grazing Act.

This same conflict between the Progressives and Capitalists appears in the Utah Enabling Act. Rarely is this conflict so clearly seen as in the Utah Enabling Act. More often, the law will say one thing, and the administration, or the courts, will say something entirely different. For example, the Constitution says that private property "shall not be taken for public use with just compensation." But the courts have twisted the meaning of "public use" to include "public benefit." This means the government can do almost anything it wishes with your land — and call it a public benefit.

In recent years, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, and other federal agencies that have jurisdiction over federal land have tightened regulations to the point that ranchers, such as Cliven Bundy and Kit Laney, are now a dying breed. It is nearly impossible for what once were thriving ranches to even survive. The Progressives — Democrats and environmentalists — have once again taken control of government. They blame Capitalists — Republicans and business leaders — for all the economic woes.

The U. S. Constitution clearly states what land the federal government may possess, and the procedure for acquiring it. Article 1, Section 8 requires the federal government to purchase land from states with the approval of the state legislature "...for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings."

The Constitution provides no authority for the federal government to own more than half of Utah and 10 other western states.

Moreover, there is no logical reason for the feds to continue their ownership of land within particular states. State governments can do a better job of utilizing the resources and protecting the environment than can the federal government. Private owners can do a better job at utilizing the resources and protecting the environment than can the state government.

It is high time for the federal government to get out of the real estate business. It is high time that the land and resources of America be returned to the citizens. Surely, both the federal and state governments could benefit immediately were they to sell their land to private interests. Progressives — Democrats and environmentalists — disagree. They are convinced that the government, not private owners, must control the use of land.

Since 1976, the government has not been content with the land it retained from western states. The U.S. government signed a U.N. document that completely reversed the Founders' view of property ownership. This document declares that all land use should be controlled by government. Since 1976, the federal government has continually expanded both its control and ownership of private property. This is a policy that must be reversed.

© Henry Lamb


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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