Similar to the feudal system of Medieval Europe, there are at least three classes of states within the United States of America. First are the eastern states, which comprise the original 13 colonies and the states of the Midwest and Great Plains. These would be the “noble class” states. Then there are the Western states. These are the “peasant class” states — of which Utah sits right in the middle. In a class all by itself is the great state of Texas, which can be considered the “clergy class.”
During the Middle Ages in Europe, serfs were bound to the land of their noble masters. They were not allowed to move from their hovels, develop any of the land they worked without the express permission of their lord, and could not hunt deer or other game in the king’s forests. In similar fashion, we here in Utah and our neighbor states are all under edict to stay off certain “public” lands, not develop any of the resources found on those lands, and not impede the wandering of the federally protected desert tortoise.
How did we end up in this servitude? It all started in California. As a condition of being accepted into the Union in 1856, California agreed to cede all “unoccupied” lands — American Indians didn’t count — within their borders to the federal government. This set the precedent for all future states wishing to join the Union. Oregon, Washington, Montana, Nevada, Idaho, North and South Dakota, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Alaska were all required to cede full ownership of unsettled lands to the feds as a condition of acceptance to the Union.
It was understood that the federal government would dispose of these lands through homesteading polices and sales as the states’ populations grew. Agreements were even set forth to eventually turn over ownership of unsettled lands to the states. The feds lived up to these agreements in North and South Dakota and to some extent in a few other states. But over time the feudal lord forgot this promise, and by the 1930s through the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, these lands were essentially designated “off limits” for most local use. Then, like a medieval papal edict, the Federal Land Use Act of 1976 declared that virtually all federal lands were henceforth to remain federal forever.
Only Texas is outside this modern feudal system, since it was an independent republic that joined the Union by treaty. One of the conditions of that treaty was that Texas retained all unowned — and Indian-owned — lands. As a result, Texas has its own independent forest service and sells land at its own will and pleasure to the feds when such needs arise. Texans develop what they want to develop and protect what they want to protect without paying undue homage to the feudal lord. Likewise, South Dakota, whose “master” honored his agreements, has managed its lands and resources fairly well all on its own.
Could not Utah and other Western “peasant” states do the same? Do we need a non-resident lord to tell us how to use our land? Is it at all likely that we would damage or destroy our own natural resources?
Except for the descendants of African slaves and American Indians, our ancestors came to this continent in part to be free of the feudal system and its remnants. Some of us have found ourselves, however, slipping right back into serfdom. We in Utah are beholden to the will of our federal master as much as any serf of the Middle Ages. It is time to tell the feudal lord to live up to its original agreements and cede back to the states all of the unsettled lands.
John Hamilton, a Tooele resident, is the creative director for Transcript Bulletin Publishing.