“And just as in feudal England, the federal government’s vast estate is preserved for the enjoyment of the very few: For an upper-crust elite who want to transform the American West into so many picturesque tourist villages and uninhabited vistas,” Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, said in a recent speech to the anti-government think tank, the Sutherland Institute, where he compared national parks to “royal forests” and outlined his proposal to eliminate public lands as Americans know them.

Just days before millions of Americans flocked to national parks and monuments to celebrate Independence Day—upper-crust elite all of them, apparently—specifically because those lands are wild and free from development, Lee also announced via Twitter that “Our long-term goal must be the transfer of federal lands to the states.”

Lee advanced three policy proposals that would go a long way toward gutting all public land protections.

He wants to re-introduce a kind of Homestead Act, which would allow states and local groups to use federal land for, well, anything, really. Lee proposes housing developments to help alleviate affordable housing issues. Or using lands for unspecified research opportunities. Lee also wants to eliminate the Antiquities Act or at least make it extraordinarily difficult to set aside land to be kept free from development and damaging resource extraction. Finally, he proposes a bill that, very simply, will transfer all federal land to the states.

ADVERTISEMENT

In his speech, the full text of which can be found here, Lee explains that the United States ought to return to the land policy and philosophy the country held in the 1800s. He celebrates that in the East and Midwest private land holdings dominate.

Elites, to Lee, are the only people who use federal lands. Not the millions upon millions of hikers, anglers, hunters, climbers, tourists, or the animals that call them home.

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

How would western states afford to control hundreds of millions of acres if the federal government dumped those lands in the lap of the states? Lee doesn’t say, but selling off huge swaths of land that had once been protected public lands to private developers could be the likely response.

ADVERTISEMENT

Sen. Lee has in the past couple months also announced plans to strip authority from the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.

Hunting groups and wilderness advocates immediately reacted to Lee’s speech with decidely negative responses.

“In other words, America’s public lands legacy is like a tree that is too large to fell in one swing, so he intends to chop and chop until it falls,” said Outdoor Life. “And if it falls, it will crush America’s hunting and fishing heritage on the way down.

“These bills are un-American, and they insult the millions of families who will spend the anniversary of our country’s independence on their public lands across the country,” Brad Brooks of The Wilderness Society said. “The Wilderness Society opposes any efforts to sell out our nation’s natural and cultural heritage to an elite few. We will hold Senator Lee and all members of Congress accountable for proposing to destroy our system of public lands.”

Lee has yet to announce a timetable for his planned legislative introductions.

Photos by Joe Leineweber (top), Gage Skidmore