State's lawsuit to force federal turnover of public lands is justified, land use advocate tells Chamber
Mike Swensen, the executive director for USA ALL, a land use advocate group involving off road enthusiasts, told the Carbon County Chamber of Commerce members at their monthly luncheon on Thursday that many of the things that are being said about House Bill 148, which was passed by the Utah State Legislature in 2011, are just not right.
"They are myths," said Swensen. "They are just not true."
The bill was sponsored by State Senator Karl Ivory during that session. Its purpose is to seek the turnover of most of the federal lands in Utah to the state's control. The deadline for doing so, according to the bill's parameters is Dec. 31, 2014. However, Swensen said that the fight will be long and hard, and land use advocates may not win the battle.
"I go to Washington D.C. and present the USA ALL point of view to those in Congress often," he said. "Things move slowly there though."
HB 148's provisions are controversial, as Utah tries along with a number of other western states to free itself from what they feel is the yoke of the federal government. Proponents say that the national government should have given the land to the states within only a few years of statehood based on a clause called the Enabling Act.
"We have done a lot of research on this and this isn't something new the states nor the federal government have just come up with," he said. "There are government documents going back to the 1850s relating to the Enabling Act. There has been a lot of debate about it over the years."
Swensen said that the act has been used to local governments advantage in a number of states in the past, but after the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 was passed by Congress things changed.
"However, there have been federal lands turned over to states as late as 2009," he stated.
The bill is based on the idea that not only should the states have control of the land in their jurisdictions, but that they could manage those lands better than many of the federal agencies presently do.
"Last year there were terrible forest fires in New Mexico on federal land," said Swensen speaking about the poor management the federal government had provided there. "They couldn't control those fires and then they reached tribal lands and poof the fires were stopped."
Most of the land under control of the federal government lies in western states. Within Utah 67 percent of the land is federal. In Nevada it is over 85 percent. Nationally, the national government has control of 30 percent of the acres in the country.
Swensen said that a lot of what people are thinking about HB 148 is wrong.
"The Salt Lake media has been very negative about this bill," he said. "The local media out in the rural areas has been more fair about what it will and won't do."
Swensen listed a number of things that are being said and then provided reasons as to why they are in his estimation, myths.
If Utah gets control of the land, much of it will be sold. Swensen said under the Enabling Act 95 percent of any money that comes in on any land sold after the state took jurisdiction would have to go to the federal government. The other 5 percent would be given to the permanent school fund in the state.
"There might be cases where transactions would take place," he said. "Take St. George for example. It is surrounded by federal land, and if it wants to expand they may need more land. But I can't see any viable reason the state would want to sell off all the land."
Property values would decrease. Swensen said if the state was not selling off the land, which they would not, he could not see how this could happen.
Hunting, grazing and other access will be reduced. Swensen stated that agriculture is a big deal in Utah and he thought that the state would be more amenable to farm and ranch needs.
"Besides I would rather deal with the Utah Department of Agriculture on policy than many of the federal agencies." he said.
The Utah legislature will exploit all the resources at the expense of the environment. Swensen pointed out that Utahns love their outdoors and that same feeling permeates the legislative bodies.
"Besides I don't think the people of this state would let that happen," he said. "Citizens can work with the legislators and local officials. These officials are closer to us and we would have much more of a voice as to what would happen than we do with the federal agencies."
The legislative attorneys found that the bill was likely to be unconstitutional. Swensen admitted that they had, but he also said there are a lot of politics in their relationship with the legislature as well. He also said he could find many attorneys (including the state Attorney General's office) that said it is constitutional.
Utah can't afford to manage the land. Swensen said that if the state could keep all the severance money that is presently leaving the state and going to the federal government from energy production, the state would have more than enough money to manage the lands.
"And there would probably be a lot more because the federal government wouldn't be holding mineral and energy development back," he stated.
In our Enabling Act we (Utah) gave up the right and title to all unappropriated public land. Swensen put the Enabling Act provisions up on the screen in front of the chamber members in attendance and pointed out that the Act actually does just the opposite. He said, instead, it actually gives the land to the state.
Swensen also listed a number of things that would be better if the state managed the land. He pointed out again that Utahn's love the outdoors and that enviromental protection would be a priority. The use of the land would produce jobs and improve the economy, money from their use could be used for public education and that rural communities would benefit the most. He added that it would provide for better national security because states would allow development of resources instead of relying on offshore sources. Further it would give the U.S. great sources of domestic energy, it would provide for better border security and there would be more family recreational opportunities. Finally he said that it would bring back the idea of state and local sovereignty, something the state has been badly lacking in with most of the land under federal control.
"Just look at Emery County," he pointed out. "The county commission there only controls what happens on 9 percent of the land because 91 percent of it is owned by the federal government."
As for support on the bill he thinks there is a lot from the states congressional delegation.
Swensen called Congressman Rob Bishop "a rock star" when it came to support for getting land in the state back into the state government's control. He also said Senator Mike Lee was strong on the idea as well.