March 7th, 2012

Whose Land Is It?

The following is an op-ed I had published at The Daily Caller today.


Has the federal government become so arrogant as to claim ownership of the land over which it has jurisdiction? Put differently, does the United States of America exist to protect and defend the property of each individual living within its borders, or to own and control that property itself?

This is not a theoretical question reserved for intellectual banter. It is a real question pondered often, especially by those in western states, where the majority of land is owned and regulated by the federal government. Although the federal government owns less than 10% of almost every eastern state, it owns large swaths of the West: 65% of the land in Utah, 83% of Nevada, 63% of Idaho, 45% of Arizona, 44% of California and similar percentages of the surrounding western states.

That may soon change if the efforts of the Utah legislature are successful. The legislature has passed a package of bills that demands that the federal government give up its claim to huge sections of “public” land. One of the bills includes a demand that nearly 30 million acres be handed over to the state — nearly 50% of the land in Utah — by 2014.

“If sovereignty means anything, it means not having to say pretty please, or mother may I,” state Rep. Ken Ivory, who is leading the Utah initiative, recently told Fox News.

Of course, the federal government doesn’t like any opposition to its mandates and practices; it has come to expect “pretty please” and “mother may I” of the several states. This point was made clear when the head of the Bureau of Land Management said last week that it was “divisive” to spend time worrying about which level of government should manage the land. “There are a lot of things that we have in common, and we ought to be focusing our attention on those common goals,” he said.

To understand what’s really being said here, imagine an employee stealing his boss’s car and letting the boss use it only to commute to and from work, under threat of violence for non-compliance. Imagine further that the employee gives his boss specific guidelines as to what type of gas he may use, what he may eat while in the car and how many passengers he can take. Then imagine the boss (rightly) being fed up about this illegitimate theft and demanding the car be returned, only to be told that such a complaint was “divisive” and that rather than worrying about the car, he should work with the employee to advance “common goals.” Pathetic, right?

If such an analogy is to be proven applicable, the question must be asked: Whose land is it? Or, better put, which level of government has the authority to own, regulate and tax that land?

During the nineteenth century, the federal government acquired what is now the western U.S. through the Louisiana Purchase, the purchases of Florida, the Oregon Territory and Alaska, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and a few smaller agreements. Until 1976, the federal government had a policy of gradually disposing of these lands in order to form new states. The money generated from the land sales would then be used to pay down the national debt. In 1833, President Andrew Jackson remarked that such an arrangement “bound the United States to a particular course of policy … by ties as strong as can be invented to secure the faith of nations.”

In 1894, Congress passed Utah’s Enabling Act, which laid out the conditions under which Utah could become a state. The act guaranteed that if Utah became a state, the federal government would sell off Utah’s federally owned lands in a timely fashion. Utah complied with the act and became a state in January 1896.

In 1976, Congress passed the Federal Land Policy Management Act, which says that “it is the policy of the United States that the public lands be retained in Federal ownership unless … it is determined that disposal of a particular parcel will serve the national interest.” The Federal Land Policy Management Act clearly violates Utah’s Enabling Act, as well as the enabling acts of other western states.

Utah and other states object. Where Utah is now leading, other western states are closely following with model legislation they can likewise implement. For legislators in Utah, the issue is a matter of contract, enforcing terms agreed upon when the state was created. As Margaret Dayton, a Utah state representative, said: “The Legislature demands that the federal government transfer the title of the public lands within the Utah borders that were agreed to in 1896 when Utah became a state.”

In short, the federal government promised to give Utah the land it controlled, selling it off to pay down the national debt. In a flagrant violation of that contractual obligation, the federal government now wants to keep two-thirds of the land in the entire state with no regard for its previous promise, let alone the massive imbalance in federal land holdings between eastern and western states.

This is a battle long overdue, and one which is gaining significant support in the West. “Divisive” indeed — Utah and other states are positioning themselves for a fight. Whose land is it? It’s certainly not the federal government’s, and it’s time to take it back.

10 Responses to “Whose Land Is It?”

  1. Clumpy
    March 7, 2012 at 4:05 pm #

    Connor, I’ve always wondered about the topic of land management in a libertarian society. Who, then, holds any claim on private land either? Right now libertarians (and most right-thinking individuals in both senses of the word) would hold a primary governmental responsibility to be the preservation of private land and property. However, if you follow the chain of purchases back from a gold mine or an oil field, there isn’t any deed directly from God backing up the person’s claim. Why, then, is it theft or trespassing for me to enter or to attempt to make use of that property? I’m uncomfortable with any system which holds inalienable the rights of the twentysecond-hand purchaser of land to a plot originally claimed by the first guy who got there with a boat and a flag (though I can’t think of a better alternative). Several branches of libertarianism reject the private claim of natural resources as an infringement on the rights of others to use it. This type of system sounds untenable to me, but it makes as much sense on its face as selling it off. If the land isn’t the government’s then does it belong to private interests with money (easy to manage, difficult to justify) or the “public” as a whole (hard to manage, easy to justify)?

    So say the Federal government were to pull out of these areas of the West (most of which have no private interest in development, anyway – states with a high proportion of wilderness, uninhabitable terrain and desert often have a misleadingly high percentage of Federal ownership practically by default, though the Feds aren’t using or profiting from that land anyway). And say we’ve decided that these lands ought to be turned over to private ownership and interests. How do we decide which private interests ought to claim the right to them? Surely it must be more than a simple sale – after all, if the government has no claim on the land in the first place then no private citizen ought to be able to buy it from them, merely transferring the coercive restriction on their use from public to private hands. If I can’t claim first dibs on the land we now call Arches National Park the moment the Feds pull back from its control, who can?

  2. TRON
    March 7, 2012 at 6:02 pm #

    I hate to break this to you but I don’t want some millionaire owning Zion’s National Park. And 84% of the country agrees with me.

    http://www.npca.org/news/media-center/press-releases/2010/new-poll-finds-overwhelming.html

    How about the white house should we auction it off too?

  3. Jennie
    March 8, 2012 at 10:02 am #

    If anyone is unconvinced by the Constitutional, moral and legal arguments Utah has, all they need do is remember that the federal government has a frightening track record of ceding US sovereignty to other governing bodies–namely, the UN.

    American property rights are precisely the target of the UN’s Agenda 21.

    http://www.theblaze.com/stories/is-the-soros-sponsored-agenda-21-a-hidden-plan-for-world-government-yes-only-it-is-not-hidden/

  4. Clumpy
    March 8, 2012 at 1:17 pm #

    Ugh, The Blaze. Pretty boilerplate Glenn Beck “journalism.” This guy took one of my better friends to his kookiness so I’ll dissect this article as a form of therapy:

    1) Pull bits of isolated stories together from myriad sources in order to create the impression of a unified conspiracy against YOU and YOUR FAMILY (in this case, an obscure quote from a 1976 United Nations conference in Vancouver, and a report written by a U.N. appointee advocating policy, neither of which have any power over the United States government). You will need a team of highly selective quote-pickers with a LOT of free time; a good conspiracy theorist is like an artist.

    2) Tie the Froot Loop conspiracy you’ve concocted in your mind to more mainstream principles currently being discussed by your government in an attempt to discredit them. So, are you unable or unwilling to debate environmental protection or social programs on their own merits and flaws, or might attacking these movements make you look insensitive or cruel? Try sidestepping the issue entirely, and tie it into a global conspiracy instead!

    3) Find a program, a policy or a plan with an ominous-sounding name to tie the whole thing together. Fill that container – in this case the ominous-sounding “Agenda 21″ – with all of the unfocused fear, paranoia and hatred that you’ve been carefully nurturing in your audience. Your audience already fears the U.N., wealthy Democrats and foreigners, but until you’re able to transfer all of that fear onto something ostensibly occurring within the United States that fear will be ineffectual to your ends.

    4) Tie it all into George Soros, however tangential his involvement (ACORN can also work). Never mind the perils of attacking a businessman for his private donations to various causes and organizations while purporting to be a free market and industry advocate – you’ve been hyping Soros as a sort of Lex Luthor for so long that your audience will immediately see his involvement as further evidence that the United States is about to give up its sovereignty to the French SWAT teams who want to break down your door.

    (The final step, of course, is to use your new celebrity to release a book every few months and sell premium subscriptions, but that goes without saying. By constantly reporting only fringe analysis you’ve inoculated your audience against the “mainstream media” who isn’t reporting these things, thus ensuring that you’ll be seen as the only news source who hasn’t bought into the conspiracy.)

    Let’s try an example:

    Let’s say I’m trying to discredit the public school lunch program. Sure, I could address matters of nutrition and varying philosophies of government, but let’s have fun with this! First, find a quote from Chairman Mao or somebody saying that controlling the populace first comes through controlling their nutrition, then bring up the San Francisco government banning Happy Meals as evidence that misguided, totalitarian left-wingers want to DECIDE WHAT YOU’RE ALLOWED TO FEED YOUR CHILDREN. Never mind that these are totally isolated and random factoids; you’ve trained your fans to read between the lines so well that it will look like a cohesive picture.

    Next, find a quote from the United Nations Standing Committee on Nutrition advocating nutrition policy for member governments as evidence that fatty foods and sugars will soon be off the shelves in the United States, preferably while taking payments from lard and corn syrup distributors right before you artificially inflate demand for their products (telling your audience tearfully between patriotic monologues to buy these substances right after they buy gold). We don’t have a program or policy to tie it all into, but we’ll find something with an ominous enough acronym eventually.

    Now, how to find the Soros connection? We could just look for a donation he’s made to a nutritional or food services group, but let’s try the “death by association” strategy that we successfully employed to associate President Obama with William Ayers. George Soros attends a gym called Sitaras Fitness, run by a Greek-American personal trainer who advocates a particular strategy of exercise and nutrition. It will be easy to make the point that Soros wants to subject all Americans to the “Sitaras Method,” and you can then tie this plot into Michelle Obama or any other liberal who’s ever advocated balanced nutrition and exercise.

  5. Clumpy
    March 8, 2012 at 1:57 pm #

    Oh, and Jennie, nothing personal with that previous post. I don’t know anything about you or where you’re coming from, so this isn’t anything but frustration and criticism of Mr. Beck. I really like some of your posts in other threads.

  6. Jennie
    March 8, 2012 at 10:22 pm #

    Clumpy, no offense taken. I am actually wholly unfamiliar with The Blaze and I don’t listen to Glenn Beck either (for good reason). I just found a slew of articles and information about Agenda 21 and posted the first one I read (it’s succinct and contains much of the same information as UN sources). It’s funny you mention the name though; apparently UN officials anticipated that people “fixated on conspiracies” would not like it, so they recommend that it be referred to as “smart growth”.

    George Soros in the title is funny though, isn’t it? Someone must have done some market research and found that including that man’s name guarantees plenty of clicks, I guess.

    As far as conspiracies go…well, it’s the oldest story in the book. I like to think of myself as a classy kind of girl and I don’t like being marginalized, but conspiracy is the name of the game and always has been all over the world. But a lot of it is no longer shocking or secret anymore. The problem may be not that people don’t know–it’s that they don’t care.

  7. Clumpy
    March 9, 2012 at 7:05 am #

    I just think that the simplest explanation involves an understanding of the U.N. as an organized body of squabbling nations with various interests, but no real power over large governments to influence their policy except through guilt. Obviously people who believe in environmentalism or any number of other causes within the nation would like to have those policies adopted worldwide, but even a few million dollars donated by a wealthy philanthropist isn’t going to make a dent in U.S. property rights, if a quote tangentially related to the organization condemning private property can even be said to be part of the U.N.’s organized agenda.

    With all of the crazy stuff going on in our nation as a result of the “Wars on…” drugs and terror, and the damage we do when we ignore our own behavior and invent boogeymen outside the nation to fear, I think our energy is often better spent elsewhere :).

  8. JL
    March 13, 2012 at 4:57 pm #

    “Public” should be just that (not including national parks). Put the land up for homestead, auction, or sale to the benefit of the people and State of Utah.

  9. JD
    March 18, 2012 at 7:57 pm #

    What ever happened to the Homestead Act?

    Here’s an idea. The federal government cedes authority over these lands to the states, with the stipulation that the states can only raise money from the sale of these lands to private settlers (read: families. NOT developers, NOT gas/oil companies, NOT mining concerns, NOT ranchers). As States pass individual Homestead Acts, we will see that private citizens desire to establish themselves upon the land that is rightfully theirs. Some stipulations of the Homestead acts include:
    - They should not require any proof of U.S. citizenship or state residency.
    - They should not allow for discrimination of any kind based on race, creed, or religion.
    - Purchasers under the state homestead acts should be required to settle their plots, establish minimal infrastructure (e.g. dirt roads/paths, dig wells, generate and distribute necessary electricity, etc.) and continuously inhabit the land for a set amount of time.

    This would encourage participation from many different groups of independent, strong-willed, and patriotic people with various political inclinations. The states benefit as they promote this form of 21st century pioneering to take place. New homes, roads, electrical grids, small towns and communities, and eventually new cities, could potentially emerge. Myriad societal pressures could be alleviated as the U.S., in partnership with the western states, works to promote this sort of free lifestyle again, after the pattern established in the 19th century.

    It’s not a very mature idea, but it might work. The trick is to make the state and federal governments believe that they will either a) make more money through taxation or b) have more power/control after the plan has been executed. If you can convince them of that, they’ll do anything.

  10. Mahonri
    May 5, 2012 at 3:49 am #

    Utah has turned down ownership of Federal Land in the past. Given how Utah government manages what they do have, taking over Federal land would be a major disaster.
    This Federal Land is much better off in Federal control – and not under the short sighted profiteering outfit known as Utah Government.

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