A panel of economists from three universities held a public meeting on August 14 at the Utah State Capitol about the state's ability to administer large tracts of land it could get from the federal government if a bill the legislature passed two years ago goes into effect. The panel was looking for suggestions on areas they should look into as far as costs go. What they got was mostly the same political rhetoric that has been heard ever since the bill was signed by the governor.
"We are just providing baseline data with this process," said the discussion leader John Harja of the Public Lands Policy Office, who was the discussion leader for about 100 people that attended. "These professionals (referring to the economists) are not making decisions. They are just getting and giving data and modeling it."
But despite that statement, for many in the audience the plea to talk only about costs and financing the state may need to make decisions on land that state may acquire seemed to fall on deaf ears.
Basically, as has happened many times before on this issue, the audience broke into two groups. One, those who come from rural areas, ranching and farming interests, energy interests, gave comments supporting the idea of the land acquisition. On the other side, environmental groups, anti-development people, human rights groups and others opposed the idea of federal land becoming state land.
The panel consisting of John Dowen and Jan Stambro from the University of Utah, Paul Jakus from Utah State University and Therese Grijalva from Weber State University, mostly listened and took notes. Some questions and comments by the audience were put directly to them, and they did respond about what they were doing, but largely the tangents the audience went off on were just met with silence other than Harja thanking those attending for their comments.
Jakus did point out during the introduction that he and Grijalva were looking to assess four different areas. The University of Utah team is taking one section of the analysis and the USU/Weber team is taking another part.
"We are looking to assess if the land is managed by the state if it will be better for the communities in the state," he said. "We also will be focusing on recreation and tourism, the economic value of the lands and the roles that public lands play in service to the communities they impact."
Stambro pointed out that the group is asking the Bureau of Land Management and the United States Forest Service to supply budget information from the lands they are managing for the last 10 years.
"We are asking about their costs of management of these lands, the revenue that is generated from the lands and the kinds of management they have to do," she said.
She pointed out that they will also be looking to impact studies on mineral extraction, oil and gas development and timber operations.
"We will be inventorying these things and then do some modeling," she stated.
Who will do legwork?
One of the things that came out in the meeting was that the panel would be doing little primary research, such as visiting communities and talking with people. It appears instead that they will count on the communities, counties and agencies to provide data.
The discussion with the audience, while filled with a lot of political points of view, did however generate some points for the panel to consider.
"I think that while the national parks are not included in this movement to take back land from the federal government, their data should be taken into account," stated one audience member. "That would be an incredibly rich database for use."
Another person attending said that he thought the panel does have a lot of information to go on because of what has happened in the country before.
"Some say we don't have studies on this," said Robert Comstock, a private citizen that attended. "But this kind of thing happened in the eastern states a long time ago. We have a 200-year-old study."
Another, Brandon Barker, asked if there was another state in the west that a model could be used from since some states like Hawaii and Nebraska had this situation in more recent times.
Many audience members brought up the point that often in projects like this all that is measured is the direct dollars that come as revenue or are expended. Some asked that there is a lot of value to public lands that can't necessarily be measured in money. They also pointed out that often land is used by people but they pay no fees for that use, yet they spend dollars in the local economies. Some suggested that one cannot put a monetary value on the lands.
There were plenty of officials from various county and state agencies at the meeting as well. Carbon County was represented officially by County Commissioner Casey Hopes and the Director of Zoning and Land Use, Dave Levanger. Included in the audience were also commissioners from Daggett, Uintah and Duchesne counties as well, among others.
Another issue that came up was what Utah might have to pay the federal government if they did get the lands for the improvements they have done over the years. Pat Shea, who ran for governor in 1992 and was the BLM director during the Clinton years, stated that other states had invested money over the years in the land in Utah. He also questioned whether the federal agencies that the panel was requesting information from could even put that information together.
Randy Parker of the Farm Bureau pointed out that some of the improvements on public lands were done by private enterprise, particularly the farmers and ranchers.
"A lot of the water development, as high as 80 percent of it, has come from farmers and ranchers," he said. "It's true that what they have done benefit their cattle and sheep, but that water development also benefits many other species, including endangered species."
The panel said it would also be looking at what brings people to Utah to live. This came up after a man who moved to the state recently said he was here because of the public open land, and another woman who had been here a long time said she came to Utah originally for that as well. Parker addressed that too.
"We know some people move here for the beauty, but we also have to ask how many come here to get a job?" he asked.
Jakus said that looking at that situation is part of what they will be doing as well.
Other ideas that were brought up included what kind of economic situation will the state be in if the land is given to Utah and when all the federal workers who are presently working in those agencies loose their jobs. Another was that the that the panel should look at what climate change might do to lands and understand that could change the way lands are used. Another was that they ought to consider the economic impact that recreation (including fishing and hunting) has on the lands.
One of the final points that was made concerned what the state might face if they did get the lands.
"How would the lands be transferred?" asked Bill Howell, the former director of the Southeastern Utah League of Governments. "Would the federal guidelines be transferred as well? The baseline should be an allodial transfer. What is the state going to assume?" [Allodial means free of restrictions. Ed.]
The panel said they will have the report ready sometime in 2014.