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Pyle: Truth about public land gets lost in translation

Published May 16, 2014 5:41 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Pat Shea was having such a wonderful Adlai Stevenson moment Wednesday evening that you half expected him to challenge Ken Ivory by saying, "Don't wait for the translation. Yes or no?"

All Ivory really had in common with Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin, Stevenson's nemesis that day at the United Nations in October of 1962, was that both were defending the indefensible.

Stevenson was confronting Zorin with evidence that the Soviets had been secretly pushing the world to the brink of nuclear war by smuggling missiles into Cuba.

All Shea, Democrat and former director of the Bureau of Land Management, and Ivory, Republican state representative from West Jordan, had to argue about was whether Utah politicians should continue to waste their time, and their constituents' money, pursuing their fool's errand of taking "back" all that land that never, ever belonged to the state in the first place.

Shea, along with University of Utah Professor Dan McCool, argued against the idea at the City Library debate sponsored by The Tribune, KCPW and the U.'s Hinckley Institute of Politics. Ivory and Utah House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart put the case for it.

Shea's question to Ivory was not quite as dramatic as Stevenson's query of Zorin. Nor was Ivory placed in such an impossible situation.

"Do you deny," Stevenson asked Zorin, "that the U.S.S.R. has placed and is placing medium- and intermediate-range missiles and sites in Cuba?"

"Did you support or did you oppose," Shea asked Ivory, "what Cliven Bundy had been doing in southern Nevada?"

Zorin didn't answer. Neither did Ivory.

Zorin, though, was really stuck. Admit that the missiles were there, and he'd embarrass himself and his nation on the world stage. Deny it, and be exposed as an intercontinental ballistic liar.

But Ivory could have significantly advanced his cause by answering.

He could have said that Bundy, the Nevada rancher who'd illegally run his cattle on federal land for decades without paying the pittance of grazing fees the feds charge, then stood behind a phalanx of self-appointed armed minutemen when the government came to seize those cattle, was a cheat, a scofflaw and a grinding embarrassment to every Westerner who sincerely believes that state and/or private ownership would be better than continued control by a far-away federal government.

And that Bundy was those things before he came out with the flood of racist statements that caused Fox News to drop him as their Man of the Hour.

Ivory could similarly have thrown San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman under the bus — or the ATV — for his just-as-illegal off-road toy vehicle ride through Recapture Canyon.

The favorite word used to describe those participating in Lyman's ride, at least according to the several Public Forum letters we have received, unanimously opposing the stunt, was "yahoo." Not the Internet search engine, but the race of idiots created by Jonathan Swift in "Gulliver's Travels."

By failing to run as far away from the armed insurrectionists who are the public face of their movement, Ivory and company permanently poison any chance they might have to win sympathy across the nation.

Most importantly, they kill any chance they have of winning support in Congress, where even the original American quota system — two senators for even the smallest states — isn't enough to win anything without the backing of the more populous states. The states where people who will never see a single acre of BLM land feel better just knowing its there.

And, as with Stevenson vs Zorin, translation matters.

The federal law that brought Utah into the Union, sharing language with similar laws creating other states, says the state has no claim to public lands within its borders, but that state coffers would receive a cut "of the proceeds of the sales of public lands lying within said State, which shall be sold by the United States subsequent to the admission of said State."

Ivory says that "shall" means "must," and the land should have been sold 100 years ago. Other uses of the same word elsewhere in the law lend credence to that view. But an equally valid translation of that archaic language is that "shall" is merely future tense, and means that, if and when the public lands are sold by the feds, the states will collect their share.

But even if "shall" does mean "must," it is a giant leap from there to the argument that because the land hasn't been sold to farmers and miners and developers means it must now be given to the state.

Chances that such a devolution of millions of acres of federal land to Western states will occur are miniscule. Chances that it will happen as long as Bundy and Lyman are leading the charge are infinitesimal.

Chances that Ivory and Lockhart will rake in campaign contributions and delegate votes while they pursue this futile crusade are enormous. And that is what it all means. No translation necessary.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, was the only one in the theater who laughed when the Klingon prosecutor said, "Don't wait for the translation," in "Star Trek VI."