SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Sen. Mike Lee said the federal government maintains its "stranglehold on the West," a grip he wants to extinguish with a trio of public lands bills he detailed on Friday.
In an impassioned speech at the Sutherland Institute, the GOP senator compared today's era of land control to feudal England in which the designation of "royal forests" for hunting resulted in the ejection of ordinary people from the land.
"What do you think happened to those people when their backyards were turned into playgrounds for the faraway elites?" he asked.
With nearly half the land in the West — more than 600 million acres under federal land management — Lee aims to start the eviction process in reverse.
He said he plans to leave current monuments and national parks intact, but wants a new "Homestead Act" to free up "ordinary land just sitting there" for other public purposes, such as affordable housing, schools, medical clinics and research.
His proposal was blasted by environmental critics.
"This is yet another assault on America's natural heritage from Sen. Lee," said Paul Spitler, director of wilderness policy with the Wilderness Society.
"The equivalent would be to just put these lands up for sale to the highest bidder."
But Lee said a current law on the books, the Recreation and Public Purposes Act, allows the interior secretary to transfer federal lands to state and local governments and nonprofit groups for certain recreational and public uses.
It would be a perfect template for new legislation, he added.
"A new Homestead Act could expand the law to allow states, local governments and individuals to petition the government for affordable housing, or education, or health care or research," he said. "Utah's housing prices continue to skyrocket, leaving affordable housing out of reach for far too many. Meanwhile, millions of acres of land sit untouched."
He said such a transfer for those purposes would mean signficant opportunity for the states and its residents.
"Just imagine what opening this land up would do for young entrepreneurs, or to attract existing businesses to create new jobs. How many schools, churches, hospitals, medical research centers, innovation hubs and affordable homes could we build even on just a fraction of this land?" Lee said.
Lee wants that to apply to all Western states with heavy concentrations of federal land ownership, as well as his proposal to "take back" federal lands to return them to the states.
"We all agree on the problem. We all know the impact federal lands have on everyday Utahns. And we all know the solution is to actually transfer these lands to the people," he said.
The senator also wants to run legislation to limit the use of the U.S. president's authority to designate new monuments or expand existing monuments in the state of Utah — modeling restrictions he says are already in place in states like Wyoming or Alaska. In this proposal, presidential use of the Antiquities Act would be prohibited unless there are state and congressional resolutions that favor the move.
Spitler said Lee's "trifecta" of proposals flies in the face of the American public's sentiment.
"The American public overwhelmingly supports public lands. They have made abundantly clear that public lands belong in public hands. … When you look at Utah and the spectacular lands that exist there, the entire identity of the state is built around its public lands."
Lee, who is on the shortlist of potential nominees to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, is continuing with his plans on legislation for the next session of Congress regardless of any uncertainty. President Donald Trump has said he will make his pick July 9.