It Takes Brains


December 4, 2017

Trump's Action on Public Lands in Utah Is Not Privatization

Ryan McMaken

As we've noted at mises.org many times, the amount of land owned by the federal government in Western states is enormous. Today, the feds control 640 million acres (not counting the far larger federally-owned areas of coastal sea floor). And in most Western states, the Federal government owns more than a third of all the land. In the case of Utah, the federal government owns 65 percent.

Federal lands

And, the Federal government is likely to continue owning at least 65 percent of the land in Utah, in spite of a recent decision by the Trump administration to shrink two National Monuments created by the Obama administration in its final months.

In an article titled "Ruled by DC: Get the Feds Out of Western Lands," I looked at the two new monuments:

In the final days of his administration, President Obama has decided that with the stroke of pen, he shall further consolidate direct federal control over lands within Western states. Specifically, Obama created the Bear Ears National Monument and the Gold Butte National Monument in Utah and Nevada, respectively. The Obama Administration claims that Obama's unilateral edict was necessary because Congress had not passed any legislation on the matter.

Indeed, the Obama-appointed Interior Secretary stated that "protecting the area using legislation would have been preferable" but that in the absence of legislation, it was necessary to simply declare the lands to be National Monuments.

Today, the Trump administration announced that it will take a different approach:

President Donald Trump said Monday that he’ll shrink two national monuments in Utah that contain stunning red-sandstone vistas, historic relics and energy resources, arguing his predecessor overstepped in protecting the land…

“Some people think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington,” Trump said. “They’re wrong. The families and communities of Utah know and love this land the best, and you know the best how to take care of your land.”

If one takes a look at the media reports on this matter, one might be left with the impression that the land is ceasing to be federal land — which is not happening.

There is no indication that the land is being "privatized" in any way. Instead, it appears much of the land would simply revert to its old status, which was as federal land administered by by Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service.

Indeed, this article by Jason Chaffetz confirms this:

In the case of Bears Ears National Monument, all of that land was already federal land mostly managed for conservation use. With President Obama’s monument designation, the maintenance fell to the already-strapped National Park Service. Many of these lands were once managed successfully by other agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service and can be again.

In spite of the fact that these "public" (i.e., government-owned) lands look to continue to be public lands, one observer claimed the move is: "the largest attack on parks and public lands in our nation’s history."

Now, it may be that local politicians want to privatize the land. For that to happen, two things would need to happen first:

  1. The land would need to be handed over the state or local governments.
  2. The state and local governments would then have to privatize the lands — often over the objections of local voters.
  3. OR, the Federal government could sell off land directly (The Trump order doesn't do this.)

But let's say the first condition actually happens, and millions of acres of federal lands are handed over to the Utah government. Well, that's obviously not privatization.

But even if the State of Utah controlled the land, it would still have to deal with what would be predictable opposition from local residents. This would include sportsmen and local merchants — people who are hardly lefty tree-huggers.

Chaffetz himself got a taste of this when he pushed legislation de-federalizing 3 million acres (out of 640 million acres) of federal land. It didn't go over well with hunters, to say the least. But local also know that local wilderness lands can be a cash cow for the local tourist industry.

In other words, de-federalization of land is a long way from privatization of land.

But, for everyone outside of Utah, this should be none of our business. If federal lands become Utah lands — as should be the case for all federal lands inside the boundaries of any US state — then it becomes a local matter for people in Utah.

And out West, most voters love their public lands.

There's one caveat: we've heard a lot about how various groups from Indian tribes have supported the designation of the two monuments because they are an important "cultural landscape."

But here's the thing: either these lands are Indian lands or they are not. If they are Indian lands, then the proper thing to do is make them tribal lands, and not federal lands. (Tribal lands are important, and there should be more of them.)

But, if they are not really tribal lands, then their administration needs to be state or local or private. After all, ownership of large tracts of land is just another "power" the US government invented for itself.

For more, see: