A new bill in the United States Senate would allow state and local governments across the West to purchase federally-managed public lands at steeply discounted prices. If the bill’s author gets his wish, those lands would then be earmarked for housing development.
S.4062 was introduced on April 7, 2022 by Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who has sought to sell public lands before. Co-sponsors include Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming.
Lee has dubbed his bill the HOUSES Act, an acronym that stands for “Helping Open Underutilized Space to Ensure Shelter.” As the lengthy title implies, S.4062 would free up public lands, currently owned and managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), for high-density housing projects.
According to the bill’s official language, it would accomplish this goal by amending the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) of 1976 “to authorize the sale of certain federal lands to States and units of local governments.” FLPMA, enacted during the administration of President Gerald Ford, gave teeth to the BLM’s regulatory framework and declared that all lands administered by the agency would remain under federal ownership.
“Supply is not meeting housing demand in Utah, and the federal government’s land ownership is a significant cause of our restricted housing stock,” Lee said in a prepared statement. “The HOUSES Act will free federal land in a responsible manner to keep the dream and promise of Utah alive.”
But the bill likely wouldn’t stop with Utah. Co-sponsor Sen. John Barrasso says that certain portions of Wyoming’s vast public trust should be opened up for residential development as well.
“As more and more people move to places like Wyoming, the growing communities need options to expand housing for residents,” Barrasso said in the same press release. “The HOUSES Act will give many new options to state and local governments by allowing them to buy certain land from the federal government for residential purposes.”
The cost of living and lack of affordable housing is a growing problem in the Mountain West. Home prices and rental costs have doubled or more in recent years, and many residents new, old, and potential are demanding solutions from lawmakers.
However, critics suggest that this bill and others like may be bait-and-switch tactics. The State of Utah has sold more than half of the 7.5 million acres of land it was granted at statehood and continues to sell state lands into private ownership. Public lands advocates fear that the state and its municipalities might buy these cut-rate BLM lands then turn around and sell them for a profit, reducing hunting and outdoors opportunities in the state.
But while Lee claims that his bill would alleviate housing woes by providing affordable options all over the West, opponents say it’s just another example of the senator’s long-standing interest in transferring public lands out of the hands of the American people.
“Sen. Lee has made a career out of hating on public lands,” Land Tawney, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers president and CEO, told MeatEater. “When he’s the lead sponsor on a piece of legislation like this, that really gives us pause.”
As Tawney alluded, Sen. Lee introduced similar legislation back in 2018. He billed those efforts as a “New Homestead Act” that would open “ordinary land just sitting there” for such uses as affordable housing, schools, medical clinics, and research.
Sen. Lee outlined this proposal during an impassioned speech delivered to the Sutherland Institute—the Utah-based think tank behind the campaign to rescind the Bears Ears National Monument. During that speech, Lee likened America’s unrivaled system of publicly-owned lands and waters to the “royal forests” of feudal England, saying that, like the forests of medieval England, America’s 640 million acre public trust is little more than an exclusive haven for “upper crust elites.” Hunters and anglers of modest means across the country wondered what he meant, since public lands are typically free for anyone to access.
Unsurprisingly, Mike Lee’s 2018 attempt to turn Americans against their own coveted parks, forests, grasslands, wildlife refuges, and other places long-preserved for the benefit and enjoyment of the people fell flat, and his “New Homestead Act” eventually withered on the vine. But that didn’t take the wind out of the Utah senator’s sails.
In 2019, he was once again advocating for the sale of “garden variety BLM land” to fund education, law enforcement, and emergency medical services.”
“He has famously said that this is a long game that he is playing and that eventually he will get it done,” Tawney said. “He is dedicated. I’ll give him that. He’s got staying power. He’s pretty safe politically in Utah, but that’s where this idea dies.”
According to Tawney, Lee’s latest attempt to divest Americans from their cherished public lands lacks significant support in the Senate.
“I think this thing is dead on arrival,” he said. “Lee has introduced legislation like this in the past. It hasn’t gone anywhere, and I don’t think this will go anywhere.”
Tawney said that if Lee’s bill did manage to get traction, the rejection from hunters, anglers, and other public land enthusiasts would be profound. Other befuddling logistics for such a plan, like water allocation, accessibility to highways and major municipalities, and interference with crucial habitat for endangered and threatened species could create more opposition.
“If this thing started to gain steam, you would see a huge pushback on that,” he said. “If it had a hearing, that would be very surprising to me, and if there actually was a vote in committee, I think we’d be just fine.”
While he’s confident that the HOUSES Act will ultimately fail, Tawney says it’s vitally important that public land hunters and anglers remain mindful of Mike Lee’s persistent efforts to sell off federally managed lands to state and local entities.
“I think it’s important that people are aware of it and for people to pay attention and voice their opinion, but this is not a three-alarm fire,” he said. “If we stay vigilant, we should be able to put this thing down.”
If you would like to voice your opposition to Mike Lee’s HOUSES Act, you can do so through BHA’s comment portal here.
Feature image via John Hafner.