Over 175 years ago, Brigham Young and the first company of Latter-day Saints entered the Salt Lake Valley in search of land to practice their faith without interference.

Their pursuit was not unique. Much of history has depended on ordinary people’s ability to have a part of the earth they call their own: a plot of land they can have and hold, “to dress it and keep it.”

Yet, modern-day Utahns and many citizens in neighboring states find themselves singled out and excluded from this basic tenet of the American dream.

They’re excluded by a federal government whose land hoard has grown to encompass a full third of the United States. This vast federal ownership is felt particularly by those in the West. The federal government owns just 4 percent of all land in the United States east of the Rockies. But west of the Rockies, it owns more than half of the land, including almost two-thirds of all land in Utah.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Section 9 of Utah’s Enabling Act stated that federally owned land within the state “shall be sold by the United States subsequent to the admission of said state into the union.”

Similar language in enabling acts for Missouri, North Dakota and Illinois has been honored. At one point, the federal government controlled over 90 percent of the land in each of those states. Not today. The federal government sold back most of that land decades ago, but Congress has yet to honor its promise to dispose of the federal land in Utah or most of the West.

The Constitution set clear limits on federal land retention. The property clause only authorizes the disposal of land, and the enclave clause limits federal land ownership only to what is needed for “the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings.” Over time, however, the stewardship of federal lands has veered from those principles into an overbearing presence that stifles the lifeblood of local communities.

This shift culminated in 1976, when Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. This law completely upended the federal government’s public land policy. No longer would it be the official policy of the United States government to sell back the land, entrusting it to the people. Instead, its policy would be to keep the land, in perpetuity, for itself.

In many respects, this vast federal estate is reserved for the enjoyment of the very few: an elite who want to transform the American West into picturesque tourist villages and uninhabited, but nonetheless beautiful, vistas. They like to say that federal lands are an inheritance for every American to enjoy. But the benefits these elites extol seem primarily to flow their way, while the burdens tend to fall upon the people who live close to those very lands.

The distant elites get their playgrounds in places like Aspen and Moab. They get their rustic cabins, craft breweries, artisanal coffee shops and bed-and-breakfasts.

But what do the actual inhabitants of these locales get?

They get to sell the family farm after generations of ownership because they’re told that the grazing rights their family has enjoyed for generations are now illegal. They watch their children grow up, anxious that they have no future where their families have lived for generations.

The federal government’s stranglehold on the West means our communities can’t fully benefit from the lands surrounding them. The inability to access these lands or collect property taxes stifles local economies and strains public services.

Although programs like payment in lieu of taxes are meant to compensate for these losses, Congress reliably fails to fully fund those programs, leaving our communities to bear the burden of federal land ownership without fair support.

Our immediate task is to rein in the federal government and reclaim a space for ordinary Americans to live and prosper. We must restore the Founders’ vision of localism and self-government. These principles inspired the creation of our communities and fostered the development of the greatest civilization the world has ever known.

As we navigate the future of our public lands, we must remember the individuals, families and towns that are the lifeblood of the West. The conversation must shift to a balanced approach that respects our natural heritage and the needs of local communities. It’s time to reevaluate our stance on federal land management and work toward solutions that uphold the spirit of our Constitution while promoting the well-being of families and the land they call home.

Mike Lee is a U.S. senator representing Utah since 2011.

This story appears in the March 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.