For the past several decades, the anti-government neo-confederates (otherwise known as the Tea Party) have howled about a so-called “federal land grab.” They claim that federal ownership of any property is unconstitutional.
In fact, they have it backwards.
Their attempts to force the federal government to give public lands to the states and private enterprise is the real land grab. That’s because, from our country’s very beginning, most of the land has been considered property of the federal government until Congress chooses to dispose of it. That principle was codified in 1870 at the Congress of Confederation, which called upon all states to relinquish claims to territories outside their boundaries to federal control so that they might be administered for the common benefit of the new nation. The principle was confirmed in 1789 as Article 4, Section 3 of the Constitution, which gives Congress the power “to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting territory or other property belonging to the United States.”
Federal lands included those taken from Native Americans, as well as those acquired from France in the Louisiana Purchase, from Britain in the Red River Valley of the North, from Spain in Florida, from Mexico in the Texas Annexation, from Mexico in the American Southwest, from Britain in the Oregon Territories, from Mexico in the Gadsen Purchase and from Russia in the Alaska Purchase.
In other words, the federal government once owned all of the land outside of the original colonies.
Over the decades, Congress has chosen to give some of the lands to cities, counties and states in the form of parks or land trusts intended to be used or sold for public good. It retained forest lands and lands deemed critical for watersheds or those unsuitable for traditional farming. And it voted to save other lands for posterity.
For example, in 1864, Congress named Yosemite Valley as the first federally-owned land to be set aside for preservation and public use. In 1872, it set aside portions of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho Territories for the world’s first National Park – Yellowstone. In 1906, Congress passed the Antiquities Act which allows the President of the United States to preserve and protect “prehistoric, historic, and scientifically significant sites on public lands” through the creation of national monuments, leading President Roosevelt to create the first national monuments at Devils Tower in Wyoming, El Morro in New Mexico, and Montezuma Castle and Petrified Forest in Arizona.
The federal lands, national parks and national monuments are not the result of federal land grabs.
They are the result of Congress maintaining control of public lands for the people it represents – all of the people. As a result, the people of the United States have millions of acres to use for recreational purposes, such as hiking, hunting, fishing and camping. In addition, the people own millions of acres that can be leased for commercial purposes that benefit the public…for transportation, for cattle grazing, for mining, for timber production, and for oil and gas production. These leases generate revenues that reduce taxes.
So, if federal ownership and management of lands is constitutional and, if it benefits the public, why would the so-called “Freedom Caucus” and other right wingers object?
In a word, greed.
They want the federal government to place all lands under state control, so the Republican-controlled western states and southern states can sell the lands for commercial development. They want to give mining companies (most of them foreign-owned) the freedom to extract uranium from the Grand Canyon, making the Colorado River radioactive in the process. They want to let private hotels, restaurant chains, tour companies and amusement parks set up shop inside National Parks. They want to let lumber companies, once again, clear-cut our old-growth public forests under the guise of “fire prevention.” They want to let home-builders sell homes on the rim of the Grand Canyon to the highest bidder.
Now that would be a real land grab.