The single best law ever passed by the United States Congress was the 1862 Homestead Act that allowed everyone willing to work for it the right to own a piece of America. The right to hold private property remains one of the few rights deemed so important by the founding fathers that it was memorialized in our constitution.
For decades homesteaders expanded the growth and development of our nation by taking advantage of the Homestead Act and creating cropland, grazing land and, eventually, communities.
More recently the ownership of America has moved back to the federal government. It has moved recklessly to federalize large tracts of land under the guise of improving the environment for all.
These land grabs are undertaken under the Antiquities Act passed in 1906 so that President Teddy Roosevelt could protect land that was of “scientific or historic” interest if an urgent situation arose. Pot hunters were ravaging Indian lands and destroying prehistoric and historic antiquities and Congress was urged to find a way to protect them.
The bill was simple and straightforward. It was 423 words long and specified that the land so protected be confined to the “smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of objects to be protected.”
Presidents have proclaimed and established 151 monuments since the act was originally passed. The smallest, Father Millet Cross National Monument is a mere 30 square meters. The largest is the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument that was started by President George W. Bush in 2006 and was expanded by President Obama last August. It now is the largest protected monument and comprises 582,578 square miles. It is twice the size of Texas.
President Obama has used the act 25 times to lock up nearly 300 million acres without any formal review, economic analysis or public comment. The federal government now owns about one-third of our land mass. The Park Service has determined that our backlog in maintenance and repair is $12 billion.
The Escalante Staircase in southern Utah was proclaimed a national monument just two months before President Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1996. It was met with great approval by environmental groups across the country as it removed 1.8 million acres of low sulfur coal from the energy markets.
(It may be a coincidence that the only coal deposit in the world larger than the Escalante is in Indonesia and is controlled by Clinton friend and major contributor James Riady.)
While a defense can always be made for protecting this or that piece of land for future generations, federalizing a piece of property also takes it off the tax rolls for the local government and its school system.
The new Trump administration has a chance to be very bold in this area. The president should ask the Secretary of Interior to appoint a civilian commission to review all federal lands and separate the Yellowstone Parks from the Escalante Staircases. They should auction off what is not “scientific or historical” and use all proceeds for debt reduction.
In addition to reducing federal debt this would return millions of square miles of land to the tax rolls to help fund local government services and schools. This would be huge in Nevada, for example, which is 84.5 percent owned by the federal government.
The federal government should keep a royalty on any future resources developed and put a ceiling on total acreage that the federal government can own. To exceed that acreage in a future monument would require selling some current holdings. To create a monument in excess of a certain small size in the future should require an act of Congress.
Donald Trump has arrived at the most powerful position in the world with a mandate for bold change. Let us pray that he uses it.