In three weeks, Utah intends to seize control of 31.2 million acres of its own land now under the control of the federal government. At least, that’s the plan.
In an unprecedented challenge to federal dominance of Western state lands, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert in 2012 signed the “Transfer of Public Lands Act,” which demands that Washington relinquish its hold on the land, which represents more than half of the state’s 54.3 million acres, by Dec. 31.
So far, however, the federal government hasn’t given any indication that it plans to cooperate. Still, state Rep. Ken Ivory, who sponsored the legislation, isn’t deterred.
“That’s what you do any time you’re negotiating with a partner. You set a date,” said Mr. Ivory. “Unfortunately, our federal partner has decided they don’t want to negotiate in good faith. So we’ll move forward with the four-step plan that the governor laid out.”
In other words, there won’t be any escorting of federal officials by state troopers to the eastern border. Instead, he said, state officials will proceed with a program of education, negotiation, legislation and litigation.
“We’re going to move forward and use all the resources at our disposal,” said Mr. Ivory, who also heads the American Lands Council, which advocates the relinquishing of federal lands to the control of the states.
With the 2012 law, Utah placed itself on the cutting edge of the heated debate over public lands in the West. The federal government controls more than 50 percent of the land west of Kansas — in Utah’s case, it’s 64.5 percent, a situation that has increasingly resulted in tensions across the Rocky Mountain West.
Those in favor of the state taking control of federal lands were buoyed by a report Monday that concluded the idea was financially feasible. Entitled “An Analysis of a Transfer of Federal Lands to the State of Utah,” the 784-page analysis found that Utah was capable of managing that property, now under the control of the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service.
“I expect that public discussion will be well served by this report. It shows the complexities and connections between Utah’s robust economy and the great quality of life Utahans enjoy,” Mr. Herbert said in a statement.
The report, conducted over 18 months by analysts at three state universities, found that Utah would incur an additional $280 million in costs to manage the lands, but would bring in some $331.7 million in royalties from mineral resources development, mainly oil and gas. Currently Utah receives only half the royalties from drilling that is allowed on federal lands inside its borders.
The study also found that while small amounts of federal ownership could stimulate economic growth in counties, such management becomes a “drag” on most counties after they reach 40 percent to 45 percent ownership, adding that, “twenty of Utah’s 29 counties exceed this threshold.”
“The findings of this report confirm that the state is more than capable of taking on the management of these lands,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah Republican, in a statement. “This data will be a helpful resource as we continue to work toward resolving some of the biggest challenges facing public lands policy in the state.”
On the other side of the debate is the environmental movement, led by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which argues that transferring federal lands to state control “makes it harder to protect Utah’s wild lands for all Americans.” Washington, environmentalists argue, is a better steward of Utah’s natural riches than Salt Lake City.
Staff attorney David Garbett argues that the report shows Utah would be unable to afford managing the federal lands without selling them or subjecting them to heavy development.
“When will the legislature realize that the public does not want to see the Wasatch Mountains barricaded with ‘No Trespassing’ signs, the Book Cliffs lost to tar sand strip mines or Arches National Park ringed with oil and gas development?” he said in a statement.
The group launched a radio and television campaign this week aimed at drumming up opposition to the plan, describing it as a “land grab.” The ads allege that managing the lands would be so costly that Utah would be forced to sell or lease them to private developers.
“But that means Utahans would lose access to the lands that formed our heritage,” says the television ad, which shows people fishing and horseback riding. “Seizing public lands: A bad idea we can’t afford.”
Mr. Ivory dismissed the attacks as “fear tactics,” pointing out that the law includes only lands designated for multiple use — in other words, economic development — and not national parks or national monuments.
“They’re trying to get people to think that the sky is falling, and it’s just not,” Mr. Ivory said. “In fact, Utah passed the only state wilderness act so that, as the lands are transferred, we designate the unique heritage sites as state wilderness to be protected under the guidelines the state establishes.”
He pointed to the report, which he says shows “clearly Utah can afford to do this without selling off any land. None of that is contemplated.”
“These are tactics by those who just want to keep making money by suing the federal government,” Mr. Ivory said, referring to environmental groups.
He pointed out that transferring federal lands to state control has the support of the American Farm Bureau, the National Association of Counties and the Republican National Committee. A half-dozen Western states are expected to consider similar proposals in next year’s legislative session, while bills have been introduced in Congress to support the idea.
Former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar slammed the Utah legislation in 2012, saying it “defied common sense,” and accused lawmakers of playing politics.
As far as Mr. Ivory is concerned, however, shifting management to the states would be far preferable than keeping the lands under the increasingly tight control of the federal government.
“Under increasing federal control, access is being restricted. The health of the land is diminishing horribly. And the productivity is depressed,” Mr. Ivory said. “This is the only way to get better access, better health and better productivity.”