Land-transfer proponents say states should be given the millions of public acres within their borders because federal management under the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service is impoverishing both the land and rural economies, and the state would do a better job.
But critics like Bill Christensen, Utah director of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, suspect the real goal is to commercialize the lands at the expense of wildlife and public access. There is nothing in Utah's land-transfer law to ensure the multiple-use model guaranteed under federal control.
"The transfer of federally held land would in no way address or improve the real issues associated with federal land management, habitat, stewardship, access," Christensen said. "It's ironic and hypocritical that the same state legislators who oppose state wildlife managers owning land now support the state ownership of federal land."
Pointing to a recent economic analysis, McCool said the only way Utah could afford to manage the 31 million acres it seeks is to usher in extractive industries, putting at risk Utah's outdoor heritage and wildlife.
"A transfer of public lands to the state will ultimately privatize and open up more land for increased energy development that would split habitat into even smaller areas creating unsustainable and isolated wildlife populations," he said.
In the audience was one of Utah's key advocates for land transfer, Rep. Mike Noel of Kanab, who took the mic after the last speaker. Under a hail of boos, he argued access and stewardship would improve under state control. After the sound was cut off, the Republican went nose-to-nose with transfer critics, some holding signs with slogans like "Stop the Klepto Terra Ists."
"You've got total misinformation," Noel told one man. "We are not trying shut this off from people trying to access to these lands and selling them off. Heavens, I would never do that."
Noel argued that the real aim is to correct an imbalance in land-management policies that have made it difficult if not impossible for the public to enjoy the land and for projects to move forward, even those intended to improve the land.
"How much land has been burned out by the Forest Service, by not having some type of true management of the land, where you don't have catastrophic wildfire and don't kill the animals?" he said.
Transfer critics dispute not only this premise, but also the legality of a state takeover.
"The whole thing is based on a falsehood," McCool said. "There was never a promise to give Utah the land. The cure for this is to have people read the enabling act" — the 1895 federal law that paved the way for Utah statehood. "It begins with a disclaimer, 'Utah, you don't get any more land.' End of story. It's unambiguous."
Salt Lake City school board president Heather Bennett denounced proponents' habits of invoking schoolchildren to justify a state takeover and of blaming federal land ownership for Utah's stingy per-pupil spending on education. She said Utah would have no money left for education after covering the millions in management costs currently paid by the feds and replacing current revenue streams from federal mineral royalties.
"Our schools are not the place to roll the economic dice," said Bennett, founder of For Kids and Lands.
"We dishonor both our children and our ancestors when we arrogantly attempt to seize lands that belong to all Americans."