This public land doesn’t fit very well, can I return it?

Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz wants to sell a few million acres of public land, saying that these lands “should be returned to private ownership.”  Recently, Pat Bagley of the Salt Lake Tribune did a “historical title search” to see if he could determine exactly to whom Chaffetz was referring when he intoned those previous private owners.

I think it is safe to assume that Chaffetz is not referring to any claim to private ownership from Native Americans, who predated the arrival of European settlers and their land title records.  And as long as those land recorder offices have been around the public lands here have been just that, public lands belonging to all Americans.

Chaffetz was less than amused with Bagley’s efforts.  In a letter to the editor last week he dredged up the worn and tenuous claim, based on an ambiguous phrase in the Utah Enabling Act, that the United States was supposed to sell off all of Utah’s public lands.[1]

However, in his rush to place a microscope on the Utah Enabling Act, the congressional act that paved the way for statehood, Chaffetz missed a little arm’s length perspective.  Section 3 of the Utah Enabling Act included a requirement that Utah and its people forever “disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands.”  Utah’s constitution gladly obliged (see Art. III, Section 2).

In other words, we promised we would never try to make a claim that this land only belonged to Utahns or private individuals.  Apparently talk is cheap.

Of course, this claim of “returning” public lands to private ownership or “taking it back” has always been something of a talisman for the anti-wilderness crowd.  But do not be fooled.  To paraphrase historian R. McGreggor Cawley’s comments regarding the Sagebrush Rebellion (or Ripoff), this isn’t so much about transferring land, it’s about combating environmental values in public policy.

So nothing like a little historical misinterpretation to demonstrate that you do not agree with the Wilderness Act, limits on grazing, wildlife protections, or other important environmental laws that apply to federal lands.

[1] Section 9, the ambiguous decree at issue here, makes more sense in light of the Utah Enabling Act and principles of legal interpretation regarding federal grants, to be read as an instruction that Utah should receive five percent of all proceeds from any federal lands that might be sold, rather than a command that those lands must be sold.