Response to Congressman Bishop’s “Public Land Initiative” – by Bill Howell

Response to Congressman Bishop’s 
“Public Land Initiative”
by Bill Howell


What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9-14. In evidence of this wisdom, a parallel may be drawn between the Boston Tea Party of December 1773 and the “Public Land Initiative” being promoted today by Congressmen Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz and which has been endorsed by Governor Gary Herbert. The common element between that historical event and the present “Initiative” is the attempt by a politically and geographically distant government to perpetuate absolute, centralized, and supreme political power at the expense of local and sovereign municipal self-governance. Consider the circumstance of the Boston Tea Party.

American patriots boarded a British merchant ship and cast 342 chests of tea overboard. The patriots, including Sam Adams who is often credited with organizing the Party, were, in part, protesting taxation by the British Parliament at the same time that the colonists were denied representation in that body, “taxation without representation.”

Parliament had reduced the tax on the tea to a pittance with the expectation that the colonists’ love of tea would overcome their resistance to it. But Parliament underestimated the colonists’ greater desire for justice and for equality with other members of the Empire. The colonists were not to be fooled. They understood that acceptance of the tax would be construed as acceptance of the unjust and degraded relationship they had with the British Empire. In the words of John Taylor, a close friend and confident of James Madison, the colonists recognized the “artifice” (ruse) of a minimal tax and refused to be caught on a “gilded hook“:

“The parliament closed the debate, by …, impos(ing) some trifling taxes …, as an entering wedge into the colonial claim of local supremacy, to be gradually driven up to the head. In that on tea, the ingenuity was used of attempting to establish a ruinous precedent, by conferring a pecuniary favour, in diminishing the price of the article in favour of the colonies. But the colonies, too wary to be caught by a gilded hook, detected, resisted and defeated the artifice.” Construction Construed, and Constitutions Indicated, by John Taylor, Richmond: Printed by Shepherd & Pollard, 1820, edited by Jon Roland 2002.

Colonial resistance to absolute, centralized, and supreme political power increased until revolution broke out. After seven years of brutal warfare, birthright sovereignty was vanquished in America and the people themselves became sovereign. Local self-governance within free and independent states, united only for certain and enumerated purposes under a national constitution, gave rise to the greatest nation and the greatest degree of personal freedom and prosperity that the world has ever known.

How does the Boston Tea Party correlate with the Public Land Initiative?

Under the “Initiative,” federal land management priorities would be adjusted. According to its sponsors, the “Initiative” would “strike a real balance between conservation and responsible development,” and it would “establish greater certainty about the way our public lands may be used.” But absolute, centralized, and complete federal management authority remains unaffected.

A list of “benefits” is offered in support of the “Initiative.” Listed benefits are regulatory certainty, revenue from multiple use management on some of the land, and responsible use of the land for both present and future generations.

This list of “benefits” is today’s “gilded hook.” Acceptance of the “Initiative” under the belief that acceptance is necessary to secure the listed benefits will be seen as tantamount to official state acceptance of continued federal ownership of our public lands as well as complete and supreme federal maritime and territorial jurisdiction over them. As crucial, official acceptance of the “Initiative” under the belief that acceptance is necessary to secure the listed “benefits” will be cited at some opportune time as “Exhibit A” in opposition to Utah’s constitutionally grounded demand for transfer of its public lands from federal to state ownership and governance.

Utahns must “detect” the “ingenuity” of this “Initiative” and “defeat the artifice” for its price is too high. Utahns must recognize that nothing is offered as “benefits” that we cannot achieve for ourselves once the federal forests and federal public lands become state forests and state public lands. If we are seduced into accepting this scheme, it will be asserted by opponents of public land transfer that we have forfeited our most valuable claim as a state. That claim is to our right of independent territorial sovereignty throughout the full extent of territory which was committed by Congress in 1894 to the purposes of this state under terms of our solemn state enabling act compact with the United States:

What then is the extent of jurisdiction which a state possesses? We answer, without hesitation, the jurisdiction of a state is co-extensive with its territory; co-extensive with its legislative power.” U.S. v. Bevans, 16 U.S. 336, 1818.

As in the days of actual revolution against unjust dominion exercised by a politically and geographically distant government, those who stand firm in Utah’s demand for transfer of our public lands to state ownership and governance are dogged by some who outwardly oppose the demand and by others of weak conviction who would kill the state’s initiative either with neglect or with “faint praise.” Sam Adams addressed these kind in his time with eloquence:

If we love wealth better than Liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of Freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or your arms. Crouch down and lick the hands that feed You. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget Ye Where our Countrymen.”

“Initiative” sponsors either ignore or deny the clear constitutional and moral grounds for the state’s demand for transfer of our public lands to state ownership. They essentially assert that restructuring federal management priorities alone is a sufficient and just outcome for the state. But this outcome is neither sufficient nor just. It is nothing more than the cloaking of absolute and supreme federal maritime power over our public lands with a veneer of revocable beneficence. But it is not beneficence, revocable or otherwise, that lies at the root of the “Initiative.” That which lies at the root of the “Initiative” is a love of power and an unremitting resistance to its diminution:

There is in the nature of government an impatience of control that disposes those invested with power to look with an evil eye upon all external attempts to restrain or direct its operations. This has its origin in the love of power.” Alexander Hamilton – The Federalist, 1787.

I fail to understand how anyone can at once profess to understand and swear allegiance to the formative and constitutionally based principles of this country, which are the bedrock of our liberty, and, at the same time, refuse the glorious opportunity now presented under Utah’s Transfer of Public Lands Act to be associated with reaffirmation of those principles.

Respectfully submitted,
Bill Howell