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On Monday, December 4, 2017, President Donald Trump travelled to Salt Lake City, Utah, to sign two proclamations restoring the use of federal land to Americans.

This was a controversial move, and lawsuits have already been filed.

However, while leftists believe Trump and his Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke are wrong, Trump campaigned on this issue in 2016. He wants greater co-ordination between the federal government and states on the use of government-owned land.

US Government still owns the land

First of all, the US government has not sold any land.

Although most of us think of the western United States as the wide open spaces where freedom reigns, in fact, the federal government owns most of the land in those states.

History

A commenter at The Conservative Treehouse points out that this started early in American history (emphases mine):

It has been long and beneficial arrangement for the American people and individual states which dates back to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. There is a misconception that land has been “taken” from states and aggregated to the Federal government. This is simply not true, as the vast majority of Federal lands have always been owned and administered by the federal government. Often, these lands included large areas of desert waste and wilderness that were not accessible or open to economic development in the 19th century, ie lands that the territories/states and their governments/populations had little use or administrative control over at the time. Indeed, most Federal lands are an artefact of the process of incorporating unsettled Western land into territories and then admitting those territories into the Union.

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law, protecting national sites of natural interest for the nation. He had good intentions and increased the number of national parks.

The Conservative Treehouse commenter says that problems arose with federal ownership after the Second World War, possibly before, when the New Deal programmes of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (Teddy’s cousin) started:

There is a problem, however: post New Deal/World War II, and particularly since the Clinton Administration, and very particularly under the Obama Administration, the Federal Government has been increasingly prescriptive in regards to Federal land management. Traditional land right uses, which are critical to Western states’ economies and including activities such as mining, ranching, drilling, have been all but banished via the Antiquities Act of 1906 and through agency-driven regulation.

Left-wing politicians believe that Native Americans and ranchers should have less access to lands that they have been successfully managing:

People whose families have used lands for centuries have suddenly found themselves treated as trespassers and criminals due to this shift. States which have counted on the economic development and use of Federal lands have been crippled. Federal land agencies have been weaponized like so much of the Washington government, to the detriment of the people.

Perhaps the conditions surrounding federal landownership need a rethink:

the local conditions of the 19th century no longer apply. States now have the ability to administer and develop remote areas within their borders. It is therefore time to examine whether the 18th century arrangement between federal and state government in regards to land ownership is the most efficient in the 21st century.

Clinton administration expansion

The Education Forum has an article about a proclamation President Bill Clinton signed in 1996 — during his re-election campaign — appropriating 1.7 million acres of land in Utah to the federal government. He did this from Arizona.

While this looked like a good thing for the environment, Clinton’s actions hid a bigger goal — to prevent American coal being mined there as a political favour, increasing the nation’s dependency on foreign coal:

Why would he dedicate a Utah monument while standing in Arizona? Well, this federal land grab was done without any consultation with the governor of Utah or any member of the Utah congressional delegation or any elected official in the state. The unfriendly Utah natives might have spoiled his photo-op.

The state already had six national monuments, two national recreation areas and all or part of five national forests. Three-quarters of Utah already was in federal hands. Still, the land grab was sold as a move to protect the environment.

At the time, the Clintons were worried that Ralph Nader’s presence on the ballot in a few Western states would draw green votes from Clinton in a race that promised to be close after the GOP retook Congress two years earlier.

In fact, the declaration of 1.7 million Utah acres as a national monument, thereby depriving an energy-starved U.S. up to 62 billion tons of environmentally safe low-sulfur coal worth $1.2 trillion and minable with minimal surface impact, was a political payoff to the family of James Riady.

He’s the son of Lippo Group owner Mochtar Riady. James was found guilty of — and paid a multimillion dollar fine for — funneling more than $1 million in illegal political contributions through Lippo Bank into various American political campaigns, including Bill Clinton’s presidential run in 1992.

Clinton took off the world market the largest known deposit of clean-burning coal. And who owned and controlled the second-largest deposit in the world of this clean coal? The Indonesian Lippo Group of James Riady. It is found and strip-mined on the Indonesian island of Kalimantan.

The Utah reserve contains a kind of low-sulfur, low-ash and therefore low-polluting coal that can be found in only a couple of places in the world. It burns so cleanly that it meets the requirements of the Clean Air Act without additional technology.

“The mother of all land grabs,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said at the time. He has called what was designated as the Grande Staircase of the Escalante National Monument the “Saudi Arabia of coal.”

Obama expansion

Late in 2016, President Barack Obama signed a proclamation to create the Bears Ears monument in Utah, which had 1.35 million acres.

Extent of federal lands

Big Think has an excellent article, complete with eye-opening illustrations of the extent of federal land ownership out West.

Excerpts follow:

The rough beauty of the American West seems as far as you can get from the polished corridors of power in Washington DC. Until you look at the title to the land. The federal government owns large tracts of the western states: from a low of 29.9% in Montana, already more than the national average, up to a whopping 84.5% in Nevada

Few minds will stir when they learn that the US federal government owns a grand total of 640 million acres of land: that figure is so vast that it becomes meaningless [1]. The sum of all that acreage adds up to about 28% of the nation’s total surface, 2.27 billion acres. That sounds like a lot, but since it is an average, and because we have nothing to compare it to, that percentage is, to use one of my favorite quotes, “the kind of information they conceal in books” [2].

By contrast, the federal government owns significantly less of Midwestern land and practically nothing on the East coast.

The land is administered by different governmental bodies:

According to the Congressional Research Service [4], a total area of just under 610 million acres – more than twice the size of Namibia – is administered by no more than 4 federal government agencies:

* The United States Forest Service (USFS), which oversees timber harvesting, recreation, wildlife habitat protection and other sustainable uses on a total of 193 million acres – almost the size of Turkey – mainly designated as National Forests.

* The National Park Service (NPS) conserves lands and resources on 80 million acres – a Norway-sized area – in order to preserve them for the public. Any harvesting or resource removal is generally prohibited.

* the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), managing 248 million acres [5] – an area the size of Egypt – has a multiple-use, sustained-yield mandate, supporting energy development, recreation, grazing, conservation, and other uses.

* the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) manages 89 million acres – an area slightly bigger than Germany – to conserve and protect animal and plant species.

The first agency is part of the Department of Agriculture, the latter three of the Department of the Interior. The Department of Defense manages an additional 20 million acres – a bit larger than the Czech Republic – as military bases, testing and training grounds, etc.

That is a lot of feds of whom to fall afoul.

Citizens cross the federal government at their peril

Big Think reminds us of one well-known recent case of an ordinary American crossing the federal government on these lands which ended badly:

That conflict came to a head very publicly last year with the case of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher whose conflict with the Bureau of Land Management over grazing rights led to the federal government impounding his cattle [6].

The case is still unresolved, as footnote 7 to the article explains:

[7] Mr. Bundy refused to pay $1.2 million in grazing fees to the BLM, arguing that the land his cattle uses belongs not to the federal, but the state government. In the spring of last year, BLM officials agreed to leave his property and release his cattle after hundreds of armed supporters showed up at the Bundy ranch. As the Washington Post recently reported, the conflict remains unresolved.

As for Big Think‘s article and graphics:

Ultimately, this map reverberates and keeps bouncing around the internet because it touches a divide in American politics and wider society that is about much more than land use. It pits libertarians versus federalists, with the gap between them increasing to such an extent that the former often seem to the latter to be no more than right-wing vigilantes, the latter to the former nothing less than world-government-promoting socialists. Until some middle ground emerges to bridge that divide, this map (and other incendiary devices) will continue to add fuel to the ideological fire.

Is extensive federal land ownership constitutional?

The Independence Institute has a good article on whether such extensive land holdings are constitutional.

This is a grey area as Rob Natelson, the author, explains. In part:

* Under the Property Clause (Art. IV, Sec. 3, Cl. 2), land titled to the federal government and held outside state boundaries is “Territory.” Federal land held within state boundaries is “other Property.”

* The Property Clause gives Congress unconditional power to dispose of property and authority to regulate what is already held. It does not mention a power to acquire.

* As for acreage (“other Property”) within state boundaries: Under the Necessary and Proper Clause, the federal government may acquire and retain land necessary for carrying out its enumerated powers. This includes parcels for military bases, post offices, buildings to house federal employees undertaking enumerated functions, and the like. It is not necessary to form federal enclaves for these purposes.

* But within state boundaries the Constitution grants no authority to retain acreage for unenumerated purposes, such as land for grazing, mineral development, agriculture, forests, or parks.

Looking at the issue historically, he concludes:

Most states were admitted to the union pursuant to treaties, agreements of cession, and/or laws passed by Congress. These are called organic laws. They include, but are not limited to, enabling acts and acts of admission. These laws cannot change the Constitution, but they have some interesting ramifications for federal land ownership. That is a topic for another posting.

My article has been cited widely. But  it will not surprise you to learn that many reject the conclusions. Liberals are unhappy, because they want to keep much of our territory socialized. Conservative land activists are disappointed because they want the federal government to convey land to the state governments, not dispose of it in other ways. It is significant, however, that no one has even tried to rebut my conclusions or the evidence for them.

Zinke visits Utah — May 2017

Ryan Zinke must be the most active Secretary of the Interior ever. He is always travelling around the United States.

In May, he visited Utah:

for a four-day listening tour. He met with community members, stakeholders, and representatives of federal, state, local and tribal governments, regarding an executive order to review some large national monuments designated under the Antiquities Act.

That description goes with this video. You can see him on horseback at the three-minute mark:

Zinke’s recommendation was to reduce the size — though not the ownership — of of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National monuments.

This is the background on Trump and Zinke visiting Salt Lake City on December 4.

Trump and Zinke visit Salt Lake City

The Salt Lake Tribune has a good report about Trump and Zinke’s visit, excerpted below:

To the cheers of Utah politicians and dismay of environmental and tribal groups, President Donald Trump swept into Utah on Monday and erased most of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National monuments — shaving 2 million acres from their boundaries and replacing them with five smaller monuments

At the invitation-only Capitol Rotunda ceremony, he signed a proclamation to shrink Bears Ears, created last year by President Barack Obama, from 1.35 million acres to 201,876. The remnants were placed into two new monuments: Shash Jaa (Navajo for Bears Ears) at 129,980 acres and Indian Creek at 71,896 acres.

He signed a second proclamation to reduce Grand Staircase-Escalante — created in 1996 by President Bill Clinton — from 1.9 million acres to 1 million. It was replaced by three monuments: Grand Staircase at 209,933 acres; Kaiparowits at 552,034; and Escalante Canyon at 242,836. The protected areas are still larger than Rhode Island.

“Past administrations have severely abused the purpose, spirit and intent of the century-old law known as the Antiquities Act,” Trump said, referring to the law used by Clinton and Obama to create the monuments.

He said presidents are supposed to set aside in monuments only the smallest area necessary to protect important resources.

The following video shows the beauty of the Grand Staircase-Escalante. The person who made this is upset, however, there will still be plenty that is preserved, even if coal mining begins. The coal mining will not be in the same area as the Grand Staircase:

National Geographic says that tourism is the mainstay of the Grand Staircase-Escalante, however, that is seasonal traffic. Those who live there are disappointed that the government bought out the leases for a proposed coal mine on the Kaiparowits Plateau in 1996. While there are service jobs aplenty, mining would give many of the residents a much better quality of life.

As for Bears Ears, National Geographic explains that, as visitor numbers increase, so does the damage to nature and Native American history:

tourists pocketing potsherds, campers using century-old Navajo hogans for firewood; graffiti on ancient rock panels; all-terrain vehicles blasting through ancestral burial grounds.

Some residents are suspicious of the federal government:

… many locals oppose relying on what they see as the heavy hand of the federal government to resolve it. The feds, says [San Juan County Commissioner Phil] Lyman, “have become very much the enemy,” and monument designation only strengthens the federal regulatory grip. “They need to leave San Juan County, not own San Juan County.” The cuts to the monument, however, are unlikely to send either the BLM or the visitors away.

It is a complicated situation. The governor of Utah, Gary Herbert, wrote an excellent Myth and Fact piece on Bears Ears for the Deseret News, which is well worth reading. Excerpts follow:

Myth: Without national monument status, the vast landscape of the Bears Ears region will be subjected to unchecked exploitation.

Fact: Before Obama’s monument declaration in December 2016, the Bears Ears region was mostly federal public land subject to a network of federal protections that conserve the area’s natural beauty and archeological treasures. Trump’s reconfiguration of the monument’s boundaries does not change the federal ownership of these lands and maintains the existing system of federal protections

Myth: Without national monument status, the Bears Ears region will be crisscrossed by coal mines, oil rigs and gas pipelines.

Fact: Mineral resources beneath Bears Ears are scarce. There is no developable oil and gas. The region’s nonrenewable resources, including uranium near the Daneros Mine, were actually outside the expansive monument boundaries declared by Obama. The integrity of the Bears Ears landscape, long kept intact before the creation of the monument, will almost certainly remain intact after Trump’s announcement. And to ensure this going forward, the state of Utah is asking for congressional legislation that will exclude the region from mineral extraction …

Utah reaction in the Capitol building

Inside Salt Lake City’s Capitol building, Ryan Zinke gave a brief speech before Trump’s arrival.

He then introduced a Navajo stakeholder who expressed her deep gratitude to everyone involved, including President Trump. She also complimented Zinke on his horseback riding:

Other state officials then spoke briefly. Finally, Trump arrived:

What follows is an excerpt from his speech:

Here, and in other affected states, we have seen harmful and unnecessary restrictions on hunting, ranching, and responsible economic development. We have seen grazing restrictions prevent ranching families from passing their businesses and beloved heritage on to the children — the children that they love.

We’ve seen many rural families stopped from enjoying their outdoor activities. And the fact they’ve done it all their lives made no difference to the bureaucrats in Washington.

We have seen needed improvements, like infrastructure upgrades and road maintenance, impeded and foreclosed. We have seen how this tragic federal overreach prevents many Native Americans from having their rightful voice over the sacred land where they practice their most important ancestral and religious traditions. (Applause.)

These abuses of the Antiquities Act have not just threatened your local economies; they’ve threatened your very way of life. They’ve threatened your hearts.

He then signed the proclamation:

This was the reaction:

Politically contentious

The Hill reported that Congress wants to take action on how the Antiquities Act is used in future.

As Trump wants to return use of federal lands to the American people where possible:

The House Natural Resources Committee approved a bill in October that would restrict the president’s ability to quickly and unilaterally declare large national monuments.

Republicans, including Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), consider the bill an important check on presidential power, and they are intent on moving the reform bill through Congress this session.

The next steps will be to move beyond symbolic gestures of protection and create substantive protections and enforcement and codify in law a meaningful management role for local governments, tribes and other stakeholders,” Bishop said in a Monday statement.

Democrats have vowed to resist any effort to diminish the presidential monument-making power, setting up potential fights if the bill moves to the House floor and the Senate.

Conclusion

This move is not nearly as calamitous and damaging as environmentalist activists say it is.

It helps the American people, especially those Native Americans, ranchers and other residents in these areas regain use of their resources.

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