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Senator Wants to Eliminate Federal Public Lands

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Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah, said states should be able to sell public land in what he calls a ‘new Homestead Act.’

moab bears ears indian creek
The Trump administration recently reduced the size of Bears Ears National Monument

On June 29, in front of a crowd at the Sutherland Institute, Senator Mike Lee outlined three bills about public land. He spoke against federally-managed public lands, which he says should be more open for development and managed by states.

The bills squarely oppose the outdoor industry’s lobby to keep public lands undeveloped and open for public use. And while far off, they could have drastic impacts on conservation efforts and outdoor recreation.

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Lee is on President Donald Trump’s short list to serve on the Supreme Court to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, who retired in June. Trump said he will decide on his replacement on July 9.

In his speech, Lee outlined three points to the crowd. Ultimately, his proposals would hand federal land to states and allow for development on and sales of these lands.

National Monument Change

Lee’s first proposal opposes the federal land designated as National Monuments by the Antiquities Act. With what Lee calls the “Protecting Utah’s Rural Communities Act,” he seeks to entrust citizens with what he says “should be their land.”

The Protecting Utah’s Rural Communities Act would prohibit a president from designating or expanding a national monument on their own. It would require both Congress and a state legislature to pass resolutions approving the presidential designation of national monuments.

bears ears national monument
Bears Ears National Monument

Build Housing on Public Land

His second bill proposal would facilitate the building of housing on federal lands.

He plans to introduce what he calls a “new” Homestead Act. It essentially gives states the power to sell off public land to be turned into housing.

A key aspect of westward expansion, The Homestead Act of 1866 transferred 270 million acres of land out of federal control to private ownership. He hailed the act as one of the great accomplishments of the Republican Party.

“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,” Lee said.

Transfer Federal Land to States

His final bill simply transfers federal lands to state control, a goal he admits will take years to accomplish.

“For it is only when the states — and the people who actually live, work, and recreate there — control their lands that we can truly make progress in this space,” Lee said.

Mike Lee on Eliminating America’s Public Land

Senator Mike Lee
Senator Mike Lee; photo from Wikipedia Creative Commons

The Sutherland Insitute, a conservative public policy think tank in Salt Lake City, served as the launch point for Lee’s agenda during a discussion on public lands.

Lee said his goals are “an enormous task — nothing that can be accomplished overnight.”

But he concluded his speech by pointing out other public land transfers.

In 2017, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed a resolution urging the Trump administration to rescind the Bears Ears National Monument. The resolution served as a flashpoint that ultimately reduced the size of both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments significantly.

It also triggered a backlash from the outdoor industry. The Outdoor Retailer convention pulled out of Utah in protest, moving the show to Denver.

Lee argued that the “upper-crust elite” want to transform the American West into picturesque tourist villages and uninhabited vistas.

“These elites like to say that America’s federal lands are an inheritance for every American. But the benefits they extol seem primarily to flow their way,” said Lee. “They get their playgrounds in Aspen and Moab. They get their rustic cabins, craft breweries, and artisanal coffee shops.”

Lee intends for his speech to instigate conversation, legislation, and change for those bills to occur.

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