Why does the federal government own 65 percent of all the land west of Denver and less than 2 percent of the land east of Denver? Who cares?
Everyone should care. The federal government was not created to be the owner of the land; it was created expressly to get the “right of soil” out of the hands of a king – that is, out of the hands of government.
The sovereign right of the king to own, to tax and control the use of land led directly to the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and, after six years of bloody war, to the Treaty of Paris in 1783. This treaty was not with the federal government, which did not yet exist. The treaty was between the king of England and each of the enumerated states. The treaty specifically recognizes these states:
…to be free sovereign and independent states, that he [the king] treats with them as such, and for himself, his heirs, and successors, relinquishes all claims to the government, propriety, and territorial rights of the same and every part thereof.
Among the many great controversies resolved by the U.S. Constitution was the question of equality among the states that constituted the original United States of America. The principle that emerged was known as the “Equal Footing Doctrine,” which supposedly insured that all states were equal in their sovereign power. Article I, Section 8 specified how the federal government might acquire land and the purposes for which it could be acquired from the states. The 10th Amendment further declared that powers not explicitly granted to the federal government were retained by the states and the people.
Where, then, is the equality for the states west of the 100th meridian?
The federal government owns about 98 percent of the land in Alaska and about 86 percent of Nevada land. Overall, the feds own 65 percent of all the land west of the 100th meridian. This fact makes a mockery of the Equal Footing Doctrine that was so important to the founders.
How this situation evolved over two centuries is the subject of many books and court battles. Much can be learned about the bumpy road to the present from the U.S. Constitution Annotated. However we got to this point is not as important as the fact that despite the intentions of the founders and the clear intent of the Equal Footing Doctrine, the states east of the 100th meridian are vastly “more equal” than the states to the west.
There is no valid reason why the federal government should own this land. Originally, it was purchased, or won, as a security measure for the eastern states. Originally, the federal government’s objective was to get the newly acquired land into private hands as quickly as possible. The sale of the land was helpful in retiring debts that accumulated during the Revolutionary War. Toward the end of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century, the goals and objectives of the federal government changed, due to the growing influence in the east of people who bought into the socialist ideal.
The foundation of socialism is the idea that government should own the sources of production and distribute its benefits “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
The land owned by the federal government is rich in resources, which should be the property of the states and the people who live there. The states and the people who live there should decide how the land and its resources are used.
But no. In the West, the federal government not only dictates how the land will be used, it also dictates how the law will be enforced. Duly elected county sheriffs are forced to stand aside while law-enforcement officers of the U.S. Forest Service confiscate the private property of ranchers who allow their cattle to eat grass that the federal government claims as its own – despite a hundred years of undisputed ownership by the rancher’s family.
The federal government should not own land other than that authorized in the Constitution. It should not be dictating how land is used in any state, and it should not be enforcing its will over the authority of local elected officials.
Several efforts to change this situation in the past have failed. The problem only worsens, and the tension between government and private land ownership is inspiring a new, better-organized effort to get the government out of the real estate business. Perhaps a new revolution is in the air.