Are endangered species endangering property rights?
Late last year, Lynn Adams received an offer of nearly $1 million for an option on the mineral wealth under his family's land in San Juan County.
But the broker withdrew the offer last month after Adams' land was identified as critical habitat for the Gunnison sage grouse, which is proposed for listing as a threatened species, according to Adams, an 88-year-old fourth-generation Monticello cattleman.
"I'm really shook up about it," Adams said. "I didn't know what to do."
Such stories have circulated through legislative meetings in recent days to support bills that sponsors hope will reduce endangered species' alleged impact on land use, reflecting the long-simmering friction between Utah's rural communities and federal wildlife management.
"This is an absolute takings, no question," Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, told a House committee Friday. His HCR7, advanced by the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Committee, asks the feds to not designate any private land in San Juan County as sage grouse habitat.
Conservationists argue the federal Endangered Species Act is flexible enough to balance property rights with species recovery when landowners and local officials work within the law's framework.
"San Juan County is one of the last places on Earth where Gunnison sage grouse still live," said Taylor McKinnon, of the Center for Biological Diversity. "That bird is an important part of our common heritage. It deserves cooperation with federal biologists rather than legislative attacks against efforts to prevent its extinction."
Utah lawmakers are also discussing Noel's HB112, which would require county assessors to take into account the presence of federally protected plants and animals when evaluating a land's taxable value. Noel says property owners are entitled to some relief when endangered or threatened animals such as the Utah prairie dog rears its head in an alfalfa field, proposed subdivision or golf course.
"It's your worst nightmare to have one of these show up on your property," Noel told colleagues in a recent committee hearing. Under HB112, which is awaiting action on the House floor, that relief could come in the form of a reduced evaluation, thus lowering the tax burden.
But conservationists say the measure could allow assessors to arbitrarily devalue land and seems aimed more at inflaming the politics of endangered species than helping people.
"It's bad for landowners, bad for endangered species and a high price for families to pay for their representatives' political agendas," McKinnon said.
Regarding sage grouse, of the 145,500 acres that would be designated its habitat in San Juan County, 95 percent is on private land. Because private holdings make up just 8 percent of Utah's largest county, this designation would affect 35 percent of San Juan's private land base, according to County Commissioner Bruce Adams, who is Lynn Adams' son.
"We are proud people. We appreciate being able to make a living off our land. We are offended the government is trying to list private land as critical habitat," Bruce Adams told lawmakers. "We can't allow this to happen. We are asking the state to act as a sovereign on behalf of the county and push back."
For more than a century, the Adamses have owned thousands of acres near Monticello. The failed lease offer covered 6,811 acres located five miles north of town on the east side of U.S. Highway 191 at $150 an acre for five years, with an option to renew at $300 an acre, according to Lynn Adams.
County Commissioner Phil Lyman told lawmakers that about 500 San Juan property owners could miss out on a combined $10 million in oil and gas leasing should the listing go through.
"The oil companies have been very interested in the area buying up leases unless your property happens to be in this critical habitat," Lyman said, "then they're not going to fight that fight."
Endangered Species Act bills
HB112 • Sponsored by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, this bill would allow county assessors to reduce a property's tax burden if its value is impacted by designation as critical habitat for threatened or endangered species. It is awaiting action on the House floor.
HCR7 • Sponsored by Noel, this resolution asks the federal government to not designate any private land in San Juan County as sage grouse habitat. It was passed Friday by the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Committee.
SCR3 • Sponsored by Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, this resolution endorses Iron County taking over recovery of the Utah prairie dog. It has cleared the House and Senate.