Herbert's costly land grab
Actions speak louder than words.
Gov. Gary Herbert recently softened his anti-federal lands rhetoric, but still he's launched the grandest attack on America's public lands of any governor in our nation's history.
In May, the governor's lawyers filed 22 lawsuits against the United States seeking more than 10,000 "road" claims crossing designated wilderness, national parks and national monuments. Many of the more than 40,000 miles of so-called "roads" are actually wash bottoms, two tracks or rough trails. If successful, Herbert's litigation will prevent professional land managers from controlling off-road vehicles in these areas.
Utahns will pay hundreds of millions of dollars in legal fees if the governor persists. Consider the state's lawsuit against the National Park Service over Salt Creek Canyon in Canyonlands National Park. There, state interests have spent a million dollars unsuccessfully trying to force the agency to open the area to off-road vehicles by claiming that the canyon bottom is a "highway." Now multiply that expensive failure by 10,000 more claims.
The governor also signed HB148, the Transfer of Public Lands Act, with no analysis or plan, and ignored state lawyers' advice that it's unconstitutional. The Act declares that the United States must convey to Utah, free of charge, 30 million acres of land that have been held in public ownership for generations. If the federal government refuses, Utah will face the United States of America in court.
The governor says he'll use the 30 million acres to raise funds for Utah without harming our lands or our quality of life. This promise would be impossible to keep, as the governor would need to sell off or lease the best of Utah's back country, a lot of it, every year. And still he'd lose money.
The governor must first raise around $300 million per year to replace the federal funds now covering management, infrastructure and personnel costs. This will be difficult because, under HB148, 95 percent of the proceeds from any land sales go to the United States. He won't be able to raise the $3 billion needed over the next decade, as he'll net only 5 cents for each dollar received per acre, even if he sells high-value real estate in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons above Salt Lake City.
For additional revenue, he could lease land to the oil and gas industry. But most of the valuable energy land is already under long-term lease to the United States. It would be years before Utah could re-lease these lands. And federal law already directs 50 percent of all funds generated by oil and gas development on federal land to the state. Just gaining the other 50 percent won't cover the management costs. So, to reduce losses, Herbert would have to lease new areas, opening now-protected lands such as Desolation Canyon and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
As for the governor's claim that he must seize federal land to fund Utah's education, this is just plain false. We can't blame our dead-last ranking in school funding on federal lands. Utah has more private land per person than over half of our fellow states. And there is no correlation between states' per-pupil funding and the percentage of non-federal land available.
Utah's limited education funding is the result of our legislature's choices. In 2011, Utah had the lowest effective tax rate on oil and natural gas activity of any Western energy producing state. And Utah has no severance tax on coal, while neighboring Wyoming's rate is between 3.75 percent and 7 percent. If we fail our children, it's at least in part because the extractive industries have been given a pass by Utah politicians.
The governor's land takeover will cost the taxpayer dearly. And the extensive privatization and development would destroy the great Western tradition of access for all to these extraordinary open spaces.
Scott Groene is executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Moab.