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The case against transferring federal public lands to Utah

Sun Advocate publisher

(Editors note: In reaction to several questions and calls about the article on the presentation that Mike Swensen from the USA-ALL organization did on June 20 at the Carbon County Chamber of Commerce monthly luncheon, the Sun Advocate has decided to run three articles discussing the issues related to House Bill 148, which asks the federal government to turn over certain lands to the state of Utah. This is the second in the series).

The old saying goes that there is opposition in all things.

And in the case of the State of Utah's move to get the federal government to turn over much of the land it presently owns within the boundaries of the state to the state, there is quite a bit.

Some of it comes from statewide groups, particularly environmentalists. Some comes from political opposition to what the Republican state dominated government does. Much of it comes from other places in the country, particularly in the east where federal land is not an issue. I is where people don't know much about the vast stretches desert and mountains that occur in the Beehive State.

That very situation, those with lots of federal land in their state and those without, well could be one of the dividing lines between whether House Bill 148 will be used as an instrument to bring many federal lands within Utah under state control.

Enviromental opposition

While many groups oppose the state of Utah getting and controlling what goes on should the land be transferred, there is not much opposition stronger to the bill that that of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Grand Canyon Trust.

As the bill was going through the legislature SUWA voiced its opposition to it. After the bill was signed by Governor Gary Herbert in March of 2012 the opposition became louder and has been strong ever since.

"This bill is almost certainly unconstitutional, is bad public policy and won't help fund Utah's schools," claims an article about the move on SUWA's website.

One of the things Utah legislators and supporters say is that the reason Utah's schools are in such bad straights in terms of funding is because the land that the federal government owns really renders no revenue for the state. One of their contentions is that other states, particularly those east of Colorado, have a lot more land in private hands that can be taxed or used for development. They say this provides a better basis for funding public schools.

But SUWA officially points out that many states that have less private land per capita consistently provide much more than Utah does with its higher number of taxed properties.

Another point they make is that the states attitude toward wild lands is much more casual than that of the federal government. The state government has generally opposed moves by Washington to create more protected land, such as wilderness or national monuments. Their feeling is that what they consider sensitive areas that are already protected such as the Grand-Escalante National Monument, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and all the wildlife refuges in the state would suddenly be up for review and opened up to types of activities that could endanger those resources. They don't feel the state has a good record in preserving wild lands.

They also are concerned about what lands might be sold off if HB 148 were to effect a change. Would cherry picking of prime lands go on because the state could get more money out of those areas? And what about the rest of the lands that did remain in state control? How much of that land would be opened up to energy and mineral development, as well as use for all kinds of recreation without much restriction.

SUWA in particular points out that the move would be bad public policy. Areas turned over to the state would include most of the national forests and other areas. Military reservations and national parks would be excluted. They claim the Utah State Legislature has chronically underfunded their own parks and forests in the past. What would it be like if they ran all of them?

Political groups

There are those of various political persuasions that also dislike the idea of the state taking over most of the land the federal government now controls. Some of these groups and people are aligned with environmental groups, others not so much.

Utah is a very pro-business state, which some see as a detriment to the society in the state. They feel the more control the state government has over things, the less the average citizen will have to say about it. They feel a national view is needed to protect the resources from exploitation.

Secondly, many question statements by many HB 148 backers concerning who can be trusted with the power to administer the land. One of the main lines of support for the bill is that the control of the land will be much closer to home. But some of those in the state oppose the turnover of the land for that very reason. They ask if one can trust state government any more than they can trust Washington? They say that the state has not been very good stewards of many lands in the state, because self interest governs more than the public good does.

Some of those in opposition add that few Utahns feel any better about what the legislature does than they do about what Congress does. Would things be worse with a legislature that often seems to run on message bills and high octane conservatism?

Finally, they point out that that same legislature has often produced members who benefit from their actions in the legislature long after they leave the body. There is a lot of mistrust in the fact that in the past some bills that were introduced by sponsors, a few years later enriched those very people. HB 148 allows for the following of the Enabling Act which says that 95 percent of the proceeds from any land sold by the state after it is turned over goes to the federal government. Five percent would go to the state, and that money would be involved in supporting education. But no bill can tell the state who it can and can't sell the land to. Who would personally gain from the sale of this land once it was in private hands? These groups and individuals point to the fact that developers have some very strong ties to the legislature.

Despite claims by proponents that the state could better manage the land, that local governments would be more in control exercising the will of the people, suspicion about the individual interests of those who are involved in this movement persist.


This is the question that has been raised the most about HB 148. Would it be deemed legal if a battle were fought in court. As everyone knows possession is 90 percent of the law in many cases and the opposition to the move say that all Washington has to do is pull out the deeds to the land that are free and clear of state ownership.

The argument that many opponents make is that the legislatures own legal counsel has deemed the bill unconstitutional. Yet the Utah State Attorney Generals office does not believe it is. The differences in opinion between lawyers on legality of many things is as common as any different point-of-view in life. What lawyers claim is one thing; what the courts say may be another.

Each side says that the Enabling Act backs their views of the bill of whether the bill is constitutional or not.

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