Taking over public lands a tough, complex task
Study • HB148 envisions state control of 30 million federal acres, but the economics remain murky.
Published: November 15, 2012 03:05PM
Updated: March 6, 2013 11:33PM
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BLM Geologist Doug Powell makes his way through a rock garden of "Hoodoo's in the Escalante Grandstaircase National Monument east of Kanab. Hartmann/photo 10/3/05

The Utah Legislature’s controversial plan to transfer millions of federal acres of mountains, desert and grasslands to the state will be extremely complicated to implement and could threaten revenue from the federal government now flowing into the state, according to a new study.

“A great deal of work needs to be done. This is a complex process. Additional steps are needed to get us to the point where we are fully informed,” Tony Rampton, a deputy attorney general assigned to public lands, told legislators Wednesday.

Among other things, the new study by the state Constitutional Defense Council (CDC) recommends:

Setting aside certain areas as wilderness or some other conservation zone protected from most development.

Ensuring continuity of millions of dollars of “payment in lieu of taxes” to counties and also existing mineral and grazing leases, which could be disrupted if federal land switches title to Utah.

Establishing an interim commission to further study the transfer of federal land to the state. Kathleen Clarke, the state’s public lands point person, urged the interim natural resources committee to draft legislation creating the commission.

Passed last session, HB148 demands title to most federal land within Utah’s borders be transferred to the state. This land covers about 60 percent of Utah and does not include the five national parks and the national monuments — except for Grand Staircase-Escalante — nor areas designated under the National Wilderness Preservation System.

The move is seen by conservationists as a land grab doomed to failure, while state officials characterize it as a way to ensure more sound management that is responsive to local concerns.

The law called for the Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office to help CDC prepare the study released Wednesday.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance jumped on the study, calling it further proof that HB148 amounts to a “fool’s errand” that has virtually no prospect of getting past Congress or the courts or even increasing revenue to the state.

“In today’s report, the state of Utah was forced to admit that their proposal to take control of federal public lands is not a money maker for the state and will not help fund Utah schools,” executive director Scott Groene said. “Gov. Herbert and the Utah Legislature should have investigated how much money Utah would lose in a land transfer six months ago, before they passed a law demanding that the federal government hand over 30 million acres of public lands to the state.”

The new study largely provides a historical and administrative perspective on the movement for state control of lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Collectively these agencies spend more than $200 million a year managing their holdings in Utah. Mining and grazing on Utah’s 22 million acres of BLM land generated about $445 million in economic activity last year. About $141 million in mineral royalties found its way to state coffers and another $34.7 million was distributed to Utah counties under as payment in lieu of taxes, or PILT, according to the study.

But these lands can be yielding much more and would be better cared for under state control, said Clarke, who ran the BLM during President George W. Bush’s first term.

“We have a serious problem. The current system doesn’t work. The federal forests are infested with bugs,” she told lawmakers. “We don’t have a federal government that is responsive to these local interests. We need to find balance in the management of these lands.”

She stressed that some lands are worth protecting and urged the Legislature to “pre-designate” certain areas as wilderness or some other conservation designation so there is no confusion about restrictive management regimes should they be transferred to the state.

“There are amazing lands throughout the state that we don’t want to disrupt or destroy, but there are activities that are compatible with those places,” Clarke said. “The state has a claim on these lands to develop them and enjoy the resources that are there.”

SUWA officials remained skeptical of the state’s motivations.

“This is terrible public policy,” SUWA lawyer Steve Bloch said.“They have passed a highly antagonistic piece of legislation. We are the only one in the country doing this. This is not a balanced approach to public land management. We have to look at the track record, more than the rhetoric.”

He noted that the federal government would reasonably expect compensation for the lands, but the state has not calculated that cost.

“These are national lands managed on behalf of all Americans, not just Utahns,” Bloch said. “The claim that these lands were promised to Utah at statehood [in 1896] is simply fictitious and historically wrong.”

bmaffly@sltrib.com

Public Lands Transfer Study recommendations

Set up a 9-member “interim” panel with representatives from various interests to continue studying the state acquisition of federal land.

Pre-designate protected wilderness or conservation areas.

Indemnify Utah counties against any loss of revenue.

Review existing state park designations and increase funding to parks and landscape conservation initiatives.

Direct new revenue to public education or other legislatively designated priorities.