It appears Utah officials are at war with the United States. Gov. Herbert says he won’t let Secretary of Interior Salazar run roughshod over us, making decisions about our lands. Rep. Bishop and Chaffetz and far right legislators make noises about taking back our land and nullifying federal laws. Taking back? When did Utah ever own it?
In 1847, some white folks from the United States came into the Salt Lake Valley and settled in Mexico. Although Mexicans claimed the land, they hadn’t notified the Shoshones, Utes, Goshutes and others who replaced the Fremont people and those who had lived here for thousands of years.
After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo the land was in a territory of the United States. A small percentage, mostly land around water or patches suitable for cultivation, was surveyed and deeded to individuals or organizations.
The largest amount of privately owned land was in the checkerboard area along the railroad. The United States gave alternate sections (square miles) for five miles on either side of the railroad to companies building the road. The hope was that the rail companies would sell their land, develop communities, and create a 10-mile strip of prosperous private landholders across America. In Utah, it turned out neither the railroad nor we could sell or give away alternate sections.
To become a state, Utah had to adopt a constitution in 1895 that addressed its relation to the union and the federal lands. Article 1, Section 3 states “The State of Utah is an inseparable part of the Federal Union and the Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the land.” The Civil War was fought to make us one nation indivisible, but Utahns had to reaffirm it. Article 2. Section 2, says: “The people inhabiting this State do affirm and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries hereof ...” Most of the new state belonged to we-the-people of the United States.
Public lands under the jurisdiction of the state are covered in Article 20, Section 1: “All lands of the State that have been, or may hereafter be granted to the State by Congress ... or that may otherwise be acquired, are hereby accepted, and declared to be the public lands of the State...” Federal land had to be granted to a state by we-the-people. It can’t be claimed by a state simply because it is within their boundaries.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, federal policies were to move the land into private ownership through homestead acts, railroad grants, mining claims, etc. Unprotected Federal lands were abused by non-owners. Large, landless sheep companies trailed herds from New Mexico and California through Utah. In Logan, flocks of sheep on the mountains could be counted by dust clouds visible from the Tabernacle. People cut timber to build homes, court houses, tabernacles, knitting mills and stores. Railroad pioneers like Eccles and Nibley cut every tree large enough to make a railroad tie.
By 1900, land around Cache Valley was denuded. Mudslides threatened homes and water supply. Local leaders petitioned the federal government to create a protected forest reserve. Albert Potter arrived from Washington in 1902. His report and minutes of meetings held with local people are in USU’s Special Collections and the Region Four, USDA Forest Service Museum. It was local people, not oppressive feds, that wanted the land put in federal protection.
And it was the local people who in the 1930s formed a corporation to buy private land in the Wellsville Mountains and give it to the Forest Service. Bill Hurst, a young land acquisition officer for the Forest Service after WWII lives in Salt Lake City. His personal papers and oral recordings are in the USU Special Collections. Bill tells of dedication of Cache citizens who raised money and bought land to give to the government. Descendants of these men, like John Stewart of River Heights, remember why people wanted the land protected.
Citizen groups like those in Cache Valley existed throughout Utah. Land was moved, by local initiative, from the unprotected public domain into protected status of National Parks, National Monuments, National Forests, National whatevers. There was resistance, but that resistance came from individuals and corporations who were getting “free” use of the land at the expense of the land’s owners — we the people.
Now, almost all the federal public land has been put, at the request of the people, into protected status. The management of that land is delegated to our hired hands: the Secretary of Interior for parks, BLM, etc. and the Secretary of Agriculture for the Forest Service.
These public servants answer to us, not a governor or legislature of any state. The lands they manage, our public lands, belong to me, you, a cabbie in New York, a janitor in Chicago, a teacher in Atlanta and a movie star in Hollywood. Taxes from that cabbie, janitor, movie star and teacher come to Utah to manage our land.
Perhaps our governor, representatives and far right legislators are unaware of our history, our constitution and settled law about public lands. Or they’re just posturing to curry the favor of those who want to use the public lands at the expense of us owners. Or maybe they want to fight the Civil War all over again. I’m not sure which is the scariest.
Thad Box is a Logan resident. He is among a number of Cache Valley freelance writers whose columns appear in The Herald Journal as part of an effort to expose readers to a variety of community voices. He is not an employee of the newspaper. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.